This Was The Decade State Surveillance Grew to become Our New Regular

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Giulia Marchi / Bloomberg via Getty Images

A police officer walks past surveillance cameras mounted on posts at Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

We live in a world in which school cameras monitor children's emotions, countries collect human DNA massively and no digital communication really appears private.

In response, we use encrypted chat apps on our cell phones, wear masks. In protests against facial recognition technology, you try in vain to hide our most personal information from advertisers.

Welcome to the new reality of mass surveillance. How did we get here?

Wael Eskandar, an Egyptian journalist and technologist, remembers documenting his country's revolution on Tahrir Square in Cairo in 2011. At that time it was known that the phone calls were being monitored and that workers such as park rangers and Security personnel passed information to the police. But few suspicious emails or posts on Twitter and Facebook would ever be monitored the same way – at least not on a large scale.

The revolution overthrew the brutal regime of long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak, but until 2014 the country was under the rule of the equally repressive President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Egyptians are now being arrested on Facebook for political statements, and some have reported that their texts were read to them by the police during detention. The demonstrations almost stopped.

In 2019, rare protests against government corruption took place in Egypt. Protesters avoided posting on social media about them to avoid being detained, but ultimately it didn't matter – dozens of people were still rounded up.

"It is as if we have no place to go any further," a woman who had attended the demonstrations told me earlier this year.

Egypt and dozens of other authoritarian ones States have increasingly used mass surveillance technologies over the past decade, and where human monitors used to listen to calls, increasingly sophisticated voice recognition software can now do so on a large scale, and algorithms search social media messages for signs of disagreement. and behavior detection also make it easier for security services to attack large sections of their population.


Khaled Desouki / Getty Images

Egyptian security forces block the road to Tahrir Square in Cairo on September 27.

However, mass surveillance is not just a domain of repressive regimes. Organizations use their own forms of surveillance – data collection to target consumers with ads, and biometric checks to monitor their moods and behaviors. In 2012, the New York Times reported that Target found out a teenager's pregnancy in front of her father. Now it uses Bluetooth to track your movements as you roam the aisles. Five years ago, the US Federal Trade Commission asked Congress to regulate data brokers and said consumers had the right to know what information they had about them. In 2019, most of these companies are unregulated and have tons of information about people, almost none of which are known to the public.

These surveillance systems are powered by an increasingly complex network of personal data. In 2009, this data may have included your neighborhood and purchase history. Now it is likely that your most personal qualities – from your facial features to your search results – will also be affected. By cross-referencing seemingly irrelevant data from different sources, companies can create detailed and meaningful profiles of people.

Surveillance systems are built by some of the world's largest technology companies, including the US technology giants Amazon, Palantir and Microsoft. In China, companies such as SenseTime, Alibaba and Hikvision – the world's largest manufacturer of surveillance cameras – are quickly moving into foreign markets from the Middle East to Latin America. And other actors, such as the Israeli NSO Group, make it easy for governments around the world to break into the devices of journalists and dissidents.

This all-seeing surveillance seems to come straight from the dystopian fiction of George Orwell's 1984 or 1984 Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. But centuries ago, novelists imagined surveillance to be the cornerstone of utopian societies. As early as 1771, the French writer Louis Sébastien Mercier represented a futuristic society as an example of the rational values ​​of the Enlightenment in a successful novel called L & # 39; an 2440. This imaginary social order was enforced by a cadre of the secret police.

In modern history, mass surveillance, when implemented, has been tedious and expensive. The Stasi, which was notorious for spying on the most everyday aspects of East German life, depended on a huge network of informants and bureaucrats to rummage through letters and eavesdrop on calls. A friend who had grown up in Dresden before the fall of the Berlin Wall once told me that she remembers being asked by her kindergarten teacher if her parents watch West German television.

Without this human involvement, these systems would simply not work. They might work well enough for governments that wanted to monitor individual troublemakers, but it was much tougher when it came to suppressing dissent.

In less developed parts of the world like Nicaragua and North Korea, government surveillance still works that way. But in richer countries – from democratic societies like the US and the UK to authoritarian ones like China – the burden of surveillance has shifted from humans to algorithms.

It has made surveillance in these locations far more efficient for both governments and businesses, and as technology improves and spreads, it is only a matter of time before the rest of the world uses similar techniques.


Mayor Valenzuela / Getty Images

Protesters against the government demonstrate at the Metropolitan Cathedral during a protest in Managua, Nicaragua, on May 26.

In 2012 I wrote a comment with the author and journalist Peter Maass, in which he said that we should consider cell phones as "trackers" instead of devices that can be used to make calls. This idea now seems strange – of course cell phones and the apps we download on them monitor our activities. We published the article without knowing that less than a year later, a 29-year-old former NSA contractor named Edward Snowden would leak an unprecedented cache of documents that substantiate part of the true scope of U.S. mass surveillance programs.

Snowden's leaked documents showed, among other things, that the NSA was collecting phone records from millions of Verizon customers and had accessed data from Google and Facebook through back doors. In Germany, the secret service also listened to millions of phone calls and read emails and text messages in a surveillance program that was often compared to that of the Stasi.

At the time when Snowden became famous, he was hiding in a hotel in Hong Kong I had also left the United States. I arrived in Beijing to work as a Reuters journalist in late 2012. After all, there are only a few hundred foreign journalists in China – a country of over a billion people – and the things they write are scrutinized because they can affect the way the world views China.

At the time, a constant topic of debate among junior reporters about kebabs and beer was whether the government was really keeping an eye on our communications or whether we were too small potatoes to make a difference. I often joked with an old friend, an American who worked in foreign affairs, that somewhere an unfortunate intern in the field of state security was monitoring our cute salvo of GIFs and emojis. We imagined our eavesdropping workers as disheveled bureaucrats, not lines of code.

A Chinese police officer insisted a year that my apartment looked cheap and messy inside. On other occasions, the police arrived at my door to check that my water heater was standard, but spent more time looking at the contents of my bookshelf and asking about my work. My colleagues, like the Financial Times' Yuan Yang, had private messages about WeChat – the ubiquitous Chinese social app from technology giant Tencent – that government officials cited.

 With my annual renewal of the China visa:
Policeman: I saw that you wrote on social media about organizing a journalist event on the 8th
Ich: I don't think I ...
Me: * thinks he realizes that he has seen this by monitoring my private messages and not in my public feed *

On my annual renewal of the China visa:

Policeman: I saw that you wrote on social media about organizing a journalist event on the 8th

Ich: I don't think I …

Me: * thinks he realizes that he has seen this by monitoring my private messages and not in my public feed *

16:36 – February 09, 2018

But, by and large, none of us has ever definitely found out whether our homes were bugged, our emails checked, and our phones monitored. We just pretended they were.

Snowden was heard all over the state news in China – the story of an American dissident who thwarted the US surveillance system was far too juicy to get over it. To date, Chinese officials have raised Snowden and what he revealed about the American surveillance program in response to questions about the Chinese nanny state.

At that time, surveillance seemed like an invisible network – something everyone knew was a problem, but was difficult to see.

What I never predicted was the expansion of surveillance technology to a form so visible and widespread that it was as much a part of China's atmosphere as Beijing's infamous smog. For example, facial recognition cameras are ubiquitous in the country after they first appeared in the western region of Xinjiang, where more than a million Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim ethnic minorities are held in detention centers. The region has become the global epicenter of high-tech surveillance, which the Chinese government has linked to persistent human surveillance, including officials who asked dozens of very personal questions for individuals and put their answers into a database. There, the police collect data in homes, police stations, and on the street to feed them into a central system called the Integrated Joint Operations Platform, which specifies whether Muslim citizens should be interned or not.

It is the first example of a government that is using 21st century surveillance technology to attack people based on their race and religion and send them to detention centers where they are subjected to torture and other horrific abuse. According to some estimates, it is the largest ethnic minority internment since World War II.

Collecting such data for security purposes is often referred to as "predictive policing" in many countries, including the United States.

When I visited Kashgar, a city in southern Xinjiang, in the fall of 2017, I felt like I got a scary glimpse of an asphyxiating future – one with DNA The collection was mandatory, and even if you fill your car with petrol, you need to scan your iris.


Bloomberg / Getty Images

A protester wears a face mask with Chinese President Xi Jinping while shining light from a smartphone during a protest on Queensway in the Hong Kong admiralty district in December.

Since then, much of the technology used in Xinjiang has been sold to other parts of the world. Businesses and the governments that contract with them point to the multiple benefits of surveillance technologies – security, public health, and more. However, there are few places in the world where people have been asked to consent to the use of surveillance technologies. Face recognition technology is already widespread in the United States, and only a handful of cities have banned it – and then only for use by government agencies. Campaigners against mass surveillance systems say it is difficult to convince people that these technologies are really harmful, especially in places where public security or terrorism are serious problems. After all, digital surveillance is usually invisible, and security cameras seem harmless.

"I don't think people are excited about technology or know about technology positively, but they don't know how it can go wrong," said Leandro Ucciferri, an association lawyer specializing in technology and human rights for civil rights in Argentina. "Usually people don't have the whole picture."

As I was reporting, I looked at the background of surveillance systems that claimed to track people on their clothing, their faces, their walks, and their behavior, I wondered how I could continue my work the same way. Could I go to a coffee source without immediately seeing it in front of a camera whose video streams have been analyzed by an algorithm?

“Technical developments themselves have enabled the Chinese government to implement its vision. Said Maya Wang, senior Chinese researcher at Human Rights Watch and one of the leading mass surveillance agencies in Xinjiang. "That's why we're seeing the rise of the entire surveillance state – because it's now possible to automate much of the surveillance and detect irregularities in data flows about human life like never before."

What Happens to The myriad facets of our private lives – going to a therapy appointment, buying birth control, keeping an appointment – if it's so easy to monitor us.

What happens when our faces and not our phones are ours? Followers?


Str / Getty Images

Surveillance cameras can be seen over tourists when they visit Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

Eritrea, a small nation in the Horn of Africa, is a place where the government’s approach to monitoring people remains vigorous in the 20th century. Only 2% of people have access to the Internet, mainly consisting of the urban elite. There is little evidence that the government is investing in sophisticated surveillance systems such as those used by China.

My friend Vanessa Tsehaye, an Eritrean-Swedish journalist and activist, deeply believes in civic initiatives for human rights in the People's Republic of Land. As a student, she campaigned for the Eritrean government to free her uncle, journalist Seyoum Tsehaye, from prison.

Tsehaye is the relentlessly positive activist I know – but even she feels bleak about the rise of future surveillance systems.

"Your main methods of censorship are restricting access to the Internet," said Tsehaye. "Eritrea is the most censored country in the world, and yet people are slowly but surely mobilizing."

. It would destroy everything. “

Earlier this year I met a Nicaraguan scholar at a conference and asked him about protests that were directed against President Daniel Ortega and that had swept across the country. I was curious to see if there were any protesters there who were concerned about facial recognition.

He told me to search for "protests in Nicaragua" on Google images. Every photo showed protesters covering their faces with handkerchiefs and sunglasses.


Sopa Images / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Gett

A protester destroys a surveillance camera in the Wan Chai MTR station during a democratic march in Hong Kong.

Aside from facial recognition, there are many reasons why demonstrators like to cover their faces – tear gas is one of them – but masks still appear in demonstrations around the world. In Hong Kong, the government even banned their use this year. It is one way of how people cope with surveillance in the modern world.

Most of the demonstrators I met during my time as a reporter are not activists who are willing to risk prison terms for the purposes for which they are fighting. Rather, they are normal people with jobs, families and responsibilities. I wondered how future protest movements would be possible in the presence of a newly developed surveillance technology. Would someone be willing to complain online about their guides, share political texts with a friend, or join a street protest if they knew they were going to be dealt with immediately by an algorithm?

"I'm very concerned that people will no longer have freedom in the future," said Wang of Human Rights Watch. “We used to worry about the age of AI as robots that destroy people like in science fiction. I think instead people are becoming robots and the sensory systems are arranged around cities, which enable governments and companies to continuously monitor us and shape our behavior. “

Anti-surveillance campaigns have been gaining momentum in some parts of the world as technology has become more pervasive. Bans on facial recognition are discussed by politicians in the United States, for example, and the EU passed the GDPR in 2016, a comprehensive set of rules for the protection of personal data.

Citizens of authoritarian states, have fewer opportunities. What many groups fear for privacy protection is a divided world, in which citizens of democratic systems have so much more rights than people who live in authoritarian countries.

Egyptian technologist Eskandar believes there is still room for optimism.

"Non-compliance was the fuel of the revolution," he told me over the phone. "I saw it. A few people with very few resources have maneuvered out a state apparatus – it has happened over and over again. I really believe that people who are advocates of freedom and not fascism can think freely. So there is hope. ”●

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