The world is skipping its way to the surveillance state, with our help

The world is skipping its way to the surveillance state, with our help
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‘Information is power’ is an oft-quoted statement that will soon be extinct. It will only take a handful of countries to secede from the internet to create an irreversible fragmentation. The internet will become the 'splinternet'. And it's going to happen sooner rather than later.

Joseph Stalin recognized what another form of powers was, and that is voting: "It is enough that the people know there was an election. The people who cast the votes decide nothing. The people who count the votes decide everything."

In the future, it won't be the people with information who have power. It will be the people who control access to the information. 

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The original dream of the World Wide Web is in jeopardy. The Web is knowledge and information. The internet is access. Control the internet and you control access to information. The blueprint for this, first drawn up by China, is being expanded in other countries: Russia, Iran, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia and Venezuela are countries expanding control over information. 

There are many forms of control; filtering, censorship, legal liability, data storage and draconian laws are only the start. An increasing number of governments are using the rubric of 'fake news' as a thinly veiled excuse for outright censorship. Russia has collaborated with China to build Runet, a way to restrict the free-flow of information from Western news sources. 

One large Silicon Valley tech company has felt the impact of Russian regulations requiring all data generated in Russia to stay local. LinkedIn got banned from operating in Russia back in 2016. Facebook and Google (for now) remain blocked inside China. The internet behind the Great Firewall is different than the one you and I see daily.

Another way to control access is to filter what can be found or searched for. This isn't only targeted at news and data. It's also aimed at videos and music. Apple is reportedly censoring certain songs about the Tiananmen Square massacre. It's noteworthy that the 30th anniversary of over 10,000 deaths is being suppressed by the same company that refused to provide the FBI with access to the iPhone of the San Bernardino terrorists.

In the case of the FBI wanting access to the San Bernardino terrorists phones, Apple CEO Tim Cook said "opposing this order is not something we take lightly. We feel we must speak up in the face of what we see as an overreach by the U.S. government.” Fourteen people were killed and 22 seriously injured in San Bernardino: Apple stood strong against government “overreach” — but for a despotic government that has killed more than 10,000 of its own citizens, Apple apparently is happy to 'collaborate.'

During the height of the former Soviet Union, it was easy to control the flow of information. There was no internet, and Pravda (“Truth” in Russian) was the main source of how the Central Committee shaped opinion and influenced behavior. The advent of the Internet changed everything — until now.

Technology originally democratized access. Now it’s being used to control it — and the users. China’s ‘Social Credit’ system is designed to monitor the actions and behaviors of its population, making it easier to see who isn’t conforming. Unlike Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation — GDPR — there is no opting out of this system.

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Venezuelan authorities under Nicolás Maduro are implementing their own version of social credit. According to the State Department “We are aware of reports that ZTE has sold technology to the Venezuelan government which may be used to control access to food, cash bonuses, and other social services through the use of a social credit system as a political control mechanism. We oppose the sale of smart cards to the Maduro regime, since these could serve as a form of social control, deny social services, or otherwise contribute to human rights abuses.” Similar contracts have been reported in Ecuador and Bolivia, as well as in Uruguay, Panama and Argentina.

This is the same ZTE that helps Iran crack down on internal dissent. Over $130 million worth of networking gear was sold to the Telecommunications Company of Iran (TCI). Not surprisingly, TCI has a virtual lock on all telephone and internet services. But it’s not just blatant censorship and surveillance that is worrisome. It’s also the law of unintended consequences arising from legislation.

The European Union recently approved sweeping new copyright rules that will eventually open the door to censorship and surveillance. Traditionally, companies and Internet Service Providers weren’t liable for copyright infringements unless a complaint was registered. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1988 placed the burden on the copyright holder to document infringement. In other words, if infringing material was placed on a server and no one ever accessed it or complained, there was no obligation to remove it.

Article 13 under the EU law has flipped this relationship. Online companies will now be required to proactively detect and block all infringing material. The German Data Privacy Commissioner is warning that Article 13 will have a far-reaching effect. “At the end of the day, this would result in an oligopoly consisting of a few vendors of filtering technologies, which would then be instrumental to more or less the entire Internet data traffic of relevant platforms and services.”

The late Tom Clancy, master of the techno-thriller genre, wrote numerous books about Russia and China. Even though he passed away in 2013, he clearly understood the forces in play. “The control of information is something the elite always does, particularly in a despotic form of government. Information, knowledge, is power. If you can control information, you can control people.”

Welcome to 1984.

Morgan Wright is an expert on cybersecurity strategy, cyberterrorism, identity theft and privacy. He previously worked as a senior advisor in the U.S. State Department Antiterrorism Assistance Program and as senior law enforcement advisor for the 2012 Republican National Convention. Follow him on Twitter @morganwright_us.