Democracy and surveillance

Bill Sims Contributing columnist

Bill Sims Contributing columnist

As individuals of a prominent democratic nation entering the brave new world of digital existentialism, we need to come to terms with the inevitability of surveillance. The question is: How does surveillance coexist in a democratic society?

The U.S. government has conceded the need for surveillance against national security threats from the outside (e.g. Russia, China) and against internal security threats (e.g. white supremacists, insurrectionists, criminal hackers).

It’s easy to comprehend the smothering surveillance of autocratic nations like the People’s Republic of China and Russia. China not only has a pervasive facial recognition system, it also integrates facial recognition with a system of behavioral social credit scores. You jaywalk or criticize the government, you get demerits that can affect your credit scores, your ability to travel, business opportunities, and social welfare support from the government. Privacy and personal data are essentially non-existent in these authoritarian countries. Penetrating government surveillance and oversight are oppressively comprehensive.

Unless you’ve been living in a cave over the past few decades, most Americans are aware of examples of digital malfeasance and security threats that face our democracy and threaten our people. Hackers use ransomware to rob us of our wealth and personal information. Enemies of the state threaten our elections, our electrical grids, and the theft of our intellectual property. Hate groups and insurrectionists threaten our national creed through digital communication devices. Misinformation and disinformation are rampant. Surveilling against these threats is an imperative. But there’s a countervailing force to be reckoned with.

Free speech is a hallmark of our democracy and its preservation is essential. Yet when it comes to free speech and social media, there is a looming threat to what I’ll call our cohesiveness as a nation. David Trinko of the Lima News said it best last week when he held that, “Social media, which started with the promise of bringing us together, instead pushes us further apart.”

Digital cult and conspiracy-theory enclaves will inevitably dwell in our modern-day society, and free speech will ensure that if people want to dive down rabbit holes and proselytize their passions and their fantasies, they will have a right to do just that. But when anarchists, terrorists and racists use digital programs as organizing platforms to threaten citizens and our democratic institutions, our federal and state governments have a right and responsibility to know who and from whence these sinister threats exist and what they are up to. So, how do you balance the need to know and track the real threats to our democratic ideals, the very ideals that distinguish us from Communist China and Putin’s Russia?

Another aspect of the digital freedom of speech and rights to privacy conundrum falls into what many are now calling “surveillance capitalism.” In short, it refers to the likes of Facebook and Google using personal data-collection algorithms to assemble extensive personal data portfolios on citizens as a quid pro quo for participating in a digital capitalist society with the rights to sell peoples’ data to the highest bidders, or in some cases to cynically manipulate people with misinformation.

Harvard business school professor emeritus Shoshana Zuboff says in her book “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism,” “While the Chinese have designed and deployed digital technologies to advance their system of authoritarian rule, the West has remained compromised and ambivalent.”

So, the problem is multifaceted. The need for surveillance to protect our country from external national security threats is clear. The need for surveillance to protect our democracy from threats coming from within is also clear. Controlling surveillance from intrusive private-sector sources, that is, the threat from surveillance capitalism is another need that has increased attention from the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communication Commission, but also regulators in the European Union. The United Kingdom, through its Online Harms Bill, puts the onus on tech companies to protect citizens rights and control things like hate speech, giving governmental authorities specific enforcement powers.

Dr. Zuboff insinuates that unregulated social and economic digital media are “chaos machines” in need of surveillance regulations that protect personal privacy but at the same time protect free speech. She professes that, “All societies are constructions in the face of chaos,” that is, by way of laws, rules and common sense regarding what is right, given the historical norms of our democratic society.

Digital surveillance designed to halt Russian meddling in our elections or attempts to disrupt our infrastructure is a no-brainer, unless it involves seditious players inside the United States. Surveillance used to interdict homeland terrorism gets trickier; but, rules governing truth, lies and consequences relative to tech giants whose platforms fuel cyber shenanigans and cyberwarfare are badly needed. So far, those responsible for needed governance have taken a laissez-faire approach which, is not only lagging leadership, it’s dangerously irresponsible.

Legislative initiatives governing these multifaceted areas are essential and long overdue. We need more activity in Congress on this front. Final prescriptions are certain to be adjudicated by our courts. Fear of surveillance is the right instinct, but unregulated cyber activity and social media is worthy of even greater apprehension.

Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, an author, and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.

Bill Sims Contributing columnist Sims Contributing columnist