Totalitarianism’s Trojan

Totalitarian Trojan Smart Phone Technology Kai Aspire Landscape

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Who’s going to stop me?

“The question isn't who is going to let me; it's who is going to stop me?”― Ayn Rand

“Stay hungry. Stay Foolish.” The words that signed off the last issue of Steward Brand’s The Whole Earth Catalog; America’s counterculture bible of the Baby Boomers’ generation. They were also the words Steve Jobs used in his 2005 Stanford Commencement speech.

Freed from the shackles of censorship, the anti-boundaries protagonists of the 1960’s anti-establishment generation evolved into the alternative thinkers that defined the Silicon Valley mindset.

From the first Apple Mac, Jobs became the poster child for how computers (once the preserve of industry and the military) would free both the consumer and the citizen¹. Imagine Millennials without Apple accessories.

These anti-rule free-thinkers harnessed Tim Berners Lee’s world wide web to create a Libertarian’s ‘utopia’. After all, the internet transcends boundaries; empowers the individual; and gives everyone a voice. Or at least that was (and still is) Tim’s vision.

And bonus, with the internet, social media came for free. Connecting, liking, flirting anytime, anyplace, anywhere. Today, the world shares likes, habits and moments in zettabytes. In fact, by 2020, the data created and shared will reach 44 trillion gigabytes (same as 44 zettabytes).

Just think how much of ourselves we share every day. And to capitalise on it all, the sexiest job of the 21st century² is now the data scientist. Whether it is politics, investing, shopping or genetics, the future is all about data.

Yet if the government were to ask us to provide such a trove of personal data, imagine the scale of the ‘civil liberties’ backlash. But keylogging trojans, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Magic Lantern, and social media monitoring software, are all an established part of global intelligence services’ armoury.

When PRISM, the US’ National Security Agency’s web traffic surveillance programme, was brought to light by whistle blower Edward Snowden, the extent of the US government’s access to private communications became public knowledge.

And it’s not just in the US. In December 2016, the UK, passed the Investigatory Powers Act, aka the Snooper’s Charter, which would allow security forces to access internet history data. Under Brexit, the future of this act is still unclear as the European Court of Justice has ruled that bulk data collection is unlawful.

Despite this, social media monitoring software is big business. Digital Stakeout, XI Social Discovery, Dataminr and SocioSpyder, to name but a few, are being bought by corporates, politicians and various government agencies to monitor, collect, and analyse social media data from platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Whether it is to stifle dissent, or collect data on future customer spending habits, social media monitoring software technology is such a booming industry that the Central Intelligence Agency even has a venture fund called In-Q-Tel that invests in it.

Yet even after Snowden’s revelations, glamorised in the Hollywood movie, few seem to realise that such surveillance is not just by governments for the ‘purpose’ of national security. Did you know that Google can even listen to your conversations?

The rise of this digital utopianism is a journey that Fred Turner chronicles in his book Counterculture to Cyberculture. Anyone with an online presence is having their data collected and online shoppers are used to finding themselves being offered goods similar to those they have purchased.

We have learned to accept this use of our personal data as part of our commercial way of life, but even though big data sellers have to hide personal information, it turns out that such practices are not as effective as people are led to believe³.

Furthermore, while consumer and government data collection is technically regulated, the big question is who regulates Google, Amazon and Facebook? Jonathan Taplin looks at these behemoths in his book Move Fast and Break Things: How Google, Facebook and Amazon have cornered culture and undermined democracy4.

Taplin shows us not only the damage that has been done to creativity in the name of distribution freedom, but that in doing so, these ‘titans’ have become the monopolies they originally aimed to break down.

All you have to do is look at the digital advertising industry. On the one hand online advertising is growing but on the other most of the money is going to Google and Facebook.

Last year, we saw first-hand how the technology created to ‘set us free’ is now dictating much our lives. If US intelligence reports are to be believed, democracy was ‘hacked’ by the Russians. Today, direct democracy is the term for new parties using technology to win elections.

And if China succeeds in its plans, by 2020 all its citizens will be enrolled in an online national database that will collect all the data it can to give them a ‘social credit’ ranking. ‘Internet Plus’, a term used by the Chinese government, effectively rates the ‘trustworthiness’ of the people based on good or bad behaviour.

Twenty-eight years after Tim Berners Lee submitted his proposal for the web “to be an open platform that would allow everyone, everywhere to share information, access opportunities, and collaborate across geographic and cultural boundaries”, the rules have changed.

Today, Tim is worried about three new trends, namely loss of control of personal data; ease with which misinformation is spread on the web; and the lack of transparency and understanding of political advertising. He is not the only one.

Tim’s fears were echoed in Berlin in March at the 2017 Princeton-Fung Global Forum, where Vinton Cerf, vice president and chief internet evangelist at Google and a principal architect of the original internet kicked off the event by asking delegates Can Liberty Survive the Digital Age?

The answer to Vinton’s question is probably, “hmmm…”. But in the meantime, the voracious disruptive power of Silicon Valley has yet to impact the financial services industry in a meaningful way.

We see European banks as ‘cheap’ relative to their US peers, but this presupposes that there is no existential challenge coming. Maybe, despite all the polemic in the financial services community, we should be grateful for our regulated status.

Regulation is the only thing keeping the Libertarians at the gate.


SDG 16 - Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions

Photo: © Niki Natarajan 2017

Artist: Kai Aspire

¹ Big Tech v Big Brother: do you view technology? (28.4.2017), Financial Times

² Data Scientist: The Sexiest Job of the 21st Century (October 2012), Harvard Business Review

³ Big data sellers fail to hide personal information, say funds (11.12.2016), Financial Times

4 Move Fast and Break Things (29.4.2017), The Times

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