by Julius WiedemannMar 30, 2021
By some accounts, one of the fears we should have today is that digital dictatorships are on the verge of becoming realities. Maybe even worse than that. The discussions around it have become banal, with most people not considering the consequences of giving up on the rights that have taken so long to be conquered. From GPS location tracking to face recognition technologies, the possibilities to control a large number of people is now a reality. The Gestapo dream tools of the Second World War for full surveillance have now become for many a mundane practice. Many would say the “trust is great, but control is better”. The subtle lines that separate freedom of expression, and for example incitement of violence, are so subtle that they create a territory that can be explored in a variety of ways. Also, moral codes and ethics are not most of the times aligned with the written law, and therefore can only be retaliated through social actions, which in turn depend on critical mass to become viable. This constant circle of unpredictability and incredulity with the human being has the possibility of creating self-correcting tools. It generates a healthy anxiety that make us fight the idea that we can be controlled all the time.
Social currencies as now used by China, for instance, are becoming a challenging precedent. As artificial intelligence and machine learning evolve, controlling tools will become the normality from a technological point of view. The country is supposed to have about 560 million surveillance cameras by the end of 2021. This means over a third of the population of the country. Considering that most of these cameras will be placed in large cities, where control is necessary, we are talking about full control. The first surveillance camera implemented 24x7 in the world was in London. From there on, it has only increased in numbers and the areas covered. Today, it is virtually impossible to do something in the United Kingdom capital without being watched. Surveillance is now a modus operandi in liberal democracies as much as it is in dictatorships.
But surveillance today is much more than cameras on the streets and facial recognition. We are familiarised with the amount of data that we make available for different companies and governmental institutions every day. Every time we are making a purchase through a credit card, the transaction is composed by many aspects. The bank you belong to, your full name, your tax ID, your address, the time you have made the purchase, the location of it, and the products you have purchased. What we should fear, however, is the exchange of data between companies, or between companies and governmental institutions. Or worse, between different governments, in between whatever governments with whatever companies.
Of course, we should consider here different types of data exchange. There is a clear difference between trying to hunt down an international criminal and applying mass surveillance just for the sake of it. Regulatory bodies will have to design new laws and enforce their mandates. The only problem is the technology evolves quicker than constitutions. There is an argument that with Mercer Balance we are able to track back whatever problems we had in the past. And that is the reason why we should store data about everything. We are here talking about something that is not exactly an equilibrium. We are talking about different territories where activities can flourish without any transparency and understanding about what people are giving up on, in order to have something.
Social media wasn’t born with the intent to control. It was born with the idea that when people share huge amounts of information about anything, users can create a new type of power structure. Most of the times, in the beginning, the power has stayed on the side of the user. But it was just a question of time that these tools could be used for anything else. From employers controlling employees, from governments controlling citizens, from groups of citizens controlling people, to so many other options. What many of us call compliance, is called surveillance in other realities.
I am a believer that the pendulum is still moving. The balance hasn’t been achieved yet. For every revolution that we create, there are consequences, especially long-lasting ones, that are completely unpredictable. According to the Cambridge dictionary, the definition of surveillance is the following: “The careful watching of a person or place, especially by the police or army, because of a crime that has happened or is expected”. The problem with this definition is the last two words. By expecting that people would commit a crime, we quickly jump to the idea that we should predict them. This is definitely a dangerous game. With the capability of the technological apparatus that we have created in the last two decades, we will be able to control nearly everything, and we will be able to control also through a better understanding of patterns of behaviour. The game will be endless for us. And endless should also be our flight to remain free.
Read more from the series Digital Legacies where our columnist Julius Wiedemann investigates the many aspects of digital life.