The Tools of Despotism

NSOC-2012Policy and laws must keep up with changing technology to prevent the oppression of civil liberty.

by Benjamin Hayward.

“It is now a journalistic cliché to remark that George Orwell’s ‘1984’ was ‘prophetic’. The novel was so prophetic that its prophecies have become modern-day prosaisms.” —Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks.

It was once unthinkable that a government could listen in on every conversation in the world. Mass surveillance was considered a dystopic future by last century’s writers. They imagined the day that a technology would exist to allow governments to monitor every aspect of their citizens’ lives. The thought experiments of yesterday have become the debates of today.

The leaks of whistleblower Edward Snowden throughout 2013 and 2014 revealed that technology had outpaced policy. This was not some single-party system using its uncontested authority to oppress its people. This was the government that was supposed to be the ‘Leader of the Free World’ spying on its own citizens en masse simply because the technology allowed it before laws were amended to disallow it.

Precedents set for spying on foreign governments during the Cold War were expanded as part of the War on Terror to include spying on individuals suspected of engaging in international terrorism. The Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Act (FISA) in the United States, written in the days of agents manually opening letter mail and listening in on phone calls, suddenly applied to data-mining Internet communications. Western governments rolled out mass surveillance apparatuses that were adjudicated by spy-era secrecy but were able to collect information on millions of individuals with ease thanks to the social and technological developments of the Internet age.

Where once words shared among people were ephemeral—lost on the wind or in ash unless great care was taken to preserve them—everyday conversations are now preserved indefinitely in digital storage. A private conversation was once the most secure way to share a secret, but today’s ‘private message’ on social media is now being indexed by advertisers, read by governments, and stored to be reread perhaps decades later. What you read and researched used to be traceable only by the books that you kept in your home; in 50 years, however, Google will have a complete record of the teenage Internet searches of every presidential candidate in the United States and around the world. The personal information collected today by Internet services can be tomorrow be accessed by government agents both benign and hostile.

The rapid growth of technology has changed the very concept of privacy and communication. Computers and the Internet were broadly adapted in order to make our lives easier, but they have…

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