The attacks of September 11, 2001 left New York City, Washington, D.C., Shanksville, Pennsylvania, the United States, and the rest of the world reeling in horror and awe. Roughly 3,000 people from 78 different countries died that day across those three American cities. The attacks were the actualized end goal of meticulous planning on behalf of the offending terrorists, and they forced the United States to solve an important problem: how can the country better protect its people from future terror plots?
In order to prevent such a tragedy from occurring again, the United States government led by then president George W. Bush, had to strategize and implement policies aimed at counteracting and squashing organized terrorism. The proposed solution was proactive government surveillance like wiretapping and accessing the bank and business records of suspected terrorists and their affiliates. This manifested in the form of the Patriot Act signed into law by then President George W. Bush just less than 2 months after that infamous day.
The National Security Agency (NSA), a United States intelligence agency of the Department of Defense (DoD), was originally oriented toward the surveillance of foreign targets posing threats to American soil and citizens. The Patriot Act emboldened the NSA to embark on domestic surveillance as a method of thwarting potential terror plots. The NSA began warrantlessly obtaining information from Americans’ international communications so long as the Americans were connected, directly or indirectly, to suspected terrorists.
In 2013, the now infamous Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employee Edward Snowden revealed the extent to which the NSA’s domestic surveillance program had grown under the program’s cover name STELLARWIND; the NSA worked with private companies Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint, among others, to engage in the bulk collection of phone records and metadata. The NSA also collaborated with tech giants Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo to pursue the unwarranted collection of troves of internet data.
Whistleblowers like Edward Snowden forced the public to confront and discuss the evolution of the NSA’s surveillance capabilities. These newly ignited conversations primarily focused on privacy rights and the scope of government encroachment into private, personal communications. By 2015 when then President Barrack Obama signed the USA Freedom Act into law, a majority of Americans disapproved of the federal government’s program of obtaining bulk data on American citizens. The USA Freedom Act is legislation aimed at curbing the NSA’s power to engage in domestic surveillance.
Given the public skepticism of domestic surveillance in the United States, governments across the globe might have seen this backlash as a suggestion to avoid pursuing domestic surveillance programs of their own. Undertaking such programs would surely result in disapproval of government and the potential loss of power when elections take place.
This was not the case.
The United Kingdom, in enacting the Investigatory Powers Act of 2016, set out to achieve a similar goal to that of the United States in the wake of the September 11 attacks: protect the country’s citizens from potential terror threats. Then UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd stated, “The internet presents new opportunities for terrorists and we must ensure we have the capabilities to confront this challenge.” The legislation requires phone and internet companies — similar to the NSA’s collaboration with Verizon and Google — to obtain and store the data from internet activity for one year and grant police and security services access to said data.
Should you want to subvert surveillance like this due to privacy concerns, using a privacy-oriented search engine like DuckDuckGo or Privado is one potential solution. These search engines prevent websites from connecting the search that brought you there with your personal information, prohibiting them from building a profile on you based on your interests. Utilizing different internet browsers like The Onion Router (Tor) or even a Virtual Private Network (VPN) are also steps you could entertain to completely mask your internet activity in anonymity.
Technological Advancements Push the Boundaries of Surveillance
As the practice of bulk collection of data from phone calls and internet searches spreads across the globe, the rise of new technologies is certain to intensify the calls for government regulation. For example, facial recognition technology, an industry already valued at over $5 billion globally and expected to double by 2025, has become more prevalent in recent years. The United Kingdom government is investing in the technology as a way to catch wanted criminals. In the United States, John F. Kennedy International Airport, as part of a larger infrastructure overhaul, has introduced facial recognition technology as a substitute for producing a boarding pass in order to both speed up the boarding process and more easily scan for potential terror threats.
At least for now, the United States and United Kingdom surveillance programs are seemingly aimed at identifying and preventing wanted criminals and terrorist activities, respectively. In China, however, the prevailing and concerning blend of authoritarianism and emerging technologies like improved internet surveillance capabilities and facial recognition bodes poorly for privacy.
The country has created what is known as the “Great Firewall,” a systematic censorship program of the internet in order to better “maintain social order and safeguard national security.” An online police surveillance force of potentially 30,000 agents who constantly scour news sites and online forums make this mass-censorship program possible. The one-party authoritarian government led by Xi Jinping in China potentially sees an open, uncensored internet as a means by which its citizens could drum up dissent and act against the party. Xi wants to prevent that sentiment from festering. In the Information Age, a time in which access to knowledge is mobile and nearly instantaneous, internet censorship in China — considerably the least free internet in the world — is synonymous with creating and maintaining a false reality, insulating people from outside information.
In 2006, Google, a subsidiary of the United States company Alphabet, went so far as to develop a censored version of its search engine so that it could operate within the confines of the Great Firewall. Google.cn, Google’s Chinese version of its search engine, provided censored search results that complied with the Great Firewall. It also presented to the user a banner on the webpage that indicated certain search results were removed in order to abide by the law. By 2009, Google had achieved roughly one third of the search engine market share in China, well below Chinese company Baidu’s 58% share. Google ultimately pulled out of the Chinese market in 2010 after falling victim to the cyber-attack known as Operation Aurora in which the Chinese government compromised Google’s network in a highly sophisticated effort to acquire the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists.
However, in 2018, it was revealed that Google had been working on a new prototype to re-enter the lucrative Chinese market. After all, the number of Chinese citizens using the internet increased nearly 70% since the American company had departed, rendering the total number of internet users in China at well over twice the entire United States population at the time. Such an exploding market would force any company concerned about its bottom line to reconsider.
Codenamed “Dragonfly,” this new program utilized the search function of Google subsidiary 265.com (which was registered in Beijing and uncensored in China) to collect search data. Google compiled Chinese citizens’ search requests and analyzed what results would appear on Google’s uncensored search engine; the company would then remove results unable to pass through the Great Firewall. The final product was a Chinese version of Google’s search engine that only showed its users content that the Great Firewall had pre-approved, similar to Google.cn a decade prior.
In October 2018, United States Vice President Mike Pence called on Google to end the “Dragonfly” program because it would “strengthen Communist Party censorship and compromise the privacy of Chinese customers.” In December 2018, The Intercept, which had first revealed that Google was working on the “Dragonfly” project, reported that the program had “effectively ended” after internal complaints from Google’s privacy team.
Surveillance Outside of the Internet
The reach of government surveillance has grown past the constraints of the internet and entered the public space.
China has already begun to rollout a “social credit” program designed to reward citizens for good behavior and punish citizens who generate social discord. Seemingly viewing Black Mirror’s Nosedive episode not as a warning but as a playbook, the Chinese government seeks to influence and maintain social order through a network of government officials. These officials survey communities, note both good and bad deeds, and record these actions so that another government agent can create social credit scores for citizens. Those with higher social credit scores are rewarded with lower interest loans and discounts on utilities and rent. The government can prohibit those with lower social credit scores from certain travel options.
Facial recognition technology, already used as a payment method at locations like convenience and grocery stores, is beginning to play a major role in the overarching surveillance program.
China, like the United Kingdom and United States, is accelerating its adoption of facial recognition technology in citizens’ everyday lives. The Asia Pacific region is the fastest growing market for facial recognition technology in the world. In fact, the Chinese city of Changsha invested roughly $83 million USD for “27,000 high-definition street cameras and over 4,000 mobile monitoring devices that are mounted on public vehicles.”
China is expected to have well over 600 million surveillance cameras in use this year as the country’s government continues building its national surveillance system unironically named “Skynet.” Further displaying the heights to which this program has grown, Beijing police have covered 100% of the city with surveillance cameras. However, this effort requires 4,300 police to monitor the constant flow of footage. As artificial intelligence continues to progress, and as real-time video feeds utilizing facial recognition software and even gait analysis, the accuracy and efficiency with which Skynet operates will dramatically increase.
Surveillance technology is spreading, and at least in Beijing, it is correlated with a crackdown on crime; 1,500 crimes were solved through the use of surveillance technology in Beijing in 2015, a 22% increase from the year prior. Chinese surveillance technology is seen as effective enough in the quest to counteract crime that foreign nations now seek to import it. Uganda, Mongolia, and Zimbabwe have all at least tested Chinese facial recognition technology in policing, prisons, and airports, respectively.
China’s Skynet surveillance program could combine with its social credit system to create a truly digitized dystopia. However, it is not just governments utilizing surveillance practices to understand and control behavior. Private companies engage in the practice as well.
Inviting Surveillance into Our Homes
The consumer technology industry is estimated to reach $422 billion this year. Smart homes like Amazon Alexa and Google Echo are estimated to account for $4.2 billion in revenue, roughly 15% growth from last year. The global voice assistant market is estimated to grow roughly 24% per year and reach $7.3 billion by 2025.
Americans crave convenience, and home assistants like Alexa and Echo represent the next phase of technological advancement that promotes a more convenient lifestyle. Instantly get today’s weather, listen to the news, or play your favorite song with no physical exertion necessary; just speak and it happens.
Amazon, in particular, seems distinctly eager to know what you want. Amazon’s Alexa is widely known, but the company has also released voice assistants in the forms of wall clocks and microwaves. Furthermore, Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods in 2017 for $13.7 billion paved the way for the company to even offer its voice assistant to grocery store shoppers.
The company really wants you to have an Alexa in your home. Similar to how Facebook and Google capitalize on tracking your internet activity, Amazon wants to capitalize on better understanding your behavior as a consumer so it can optimize your “Amazon experience” and more efficiently induce sales.
Amazon, Google, and other companies that offer voice assistants use artificial intelligence to analyze normal conversations in order to more accurately understand human speech. Additionally, Amazon and Google are always listening to you, and your commands are stored in the companies’ databases. By building large databases of human speech and artificial intelligence to analyze your voice recordings, these companies can more accurately understand what consumers like you want. Then, they personalize their online suggestions to you with what they think you are most likely to purchase in order to capitalize on previously unconverted sales.
In the Digital Age, everyone leaves a digital footprint. With options like privacy-oriented search engines, browsers, and VPNs, individuals can try to adjust the size of the digital footprint they leave.
However, as major countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, and China all ramp up their respective surveillance programs, your ability to protect private personal information withers away. The digital wake you leave behind can accumulate without your consent through these surveillance programs, and the advent of voice assistants in the quest for ultimate consumer convenience only exacerbates the problem.
It may seem impossible to completely unplug and go “off the grid.” If you have the free time and plenty of disposable income, maybe a short-term “digital detox” could remind you of life offline. Just don’t tell Alexa.