We left our anonymity behind in the 20th century. The 21st century has become the Century of Surveillance and 20 years into it, governments have picked up all the tools of the trade to spy on their citizens effectively. They are joined by big corporations, Big Tech in particular, along with various spying agencies, hackers and other bad state actors.
At the turn of the century, when it came to technology, the whole world was consumed with the Y2K crisis or the Millennium Bug. Y2K stands for Year 2000 and it was felt that since computers only used the last two digits for the year, they wouldn’t be able to distinguish between 2000 and 1900, which would lead to grave errors. There could be pandemonium at the turn of the century. There were scares that computers would go bust, planes would go down, stock markets would crash etc. Some cults even predicted the end of the world. But we solved that problem without much fuss and India entered the path to becoming an IT services superpower, getting a good chunk of the Y2K outsourcing market.
What really changed the world came a year later. The exact date being September 11, 2001, when the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York came down. 9/11 may have been a great geopolitical event, but it also led to the Patriot Act, which turned America into a Surveillance State. The National Security Agency (NSA) became all powerful and it was just a matter of time before other countries and agencies followed suit.
The second factor was the rise of China as an IT superpower and their use of tech to monitor citizens and streamline their activities effectively. Being a Communist country with no checks and balances, it was tech on steroids when compared to America. A credit score system was introduced. Facial recognition ensured that nobody could escape its reach. Artificial Intelligence became all-powerful. AI courts are gaining ground in China.
Stories of a surveillance state dystopia abound in literature and films, the first famous one being George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four. If 9/11 set the trend and China provided the tools, then what was left was the opportunity for the world to do so. That came with the Covid-19 crisis. A widespread alarmist global pandemic in the age of surveillance tech meant that governments could monitor the health and movements of all their citizens without protest. Social distancing means that all the no touch technologies can be pushed to the limit and there so many of them.
A look at the complexities of the global surveillance state that we all live in…
Public/digital data growing enormously—so is the cloud: Once most data was not recorded and what was recorded was in the form of paper which was not very accessible to everyone and required a great deal of red tape. Even with the advent of the computer, data was localized and hid behind a bureaucratic machine rather than a bureaucratic folder.
Then came the cloud, where an unlimited amount of data could be saved and in multiple places. You no longer needed messy triplicates which had to be stored in faraway godowns. The data that you collected could be increased manifold. It could be recorded directly digitally instead of being converted from paper and it could be accessed by anyone by any device from any part of the world provided you had the right access. Today there are millions of data centres in the world and billions of access devices.
For the first time in history tonnes of data related to all 7 billion odd global citizens is out there. Nobody is anonymous. Anybody can become famous at the click of a button. Anyone can be studied in detail anonymously with the person being studied not knowing about it or even knowing how much data related to him or her was out there in the cloud.
People want to make information public: That’s another problem with data privacy, data collection and the rights of citizens is that people actually want to put out data in the public domain indiscriminately and irresponsibly. The age of Social Media has shown that to be the case. People willingly put up their names, relationship details, photos, locations, holidays, political beliefs… you name it. Personal information is there for the taking while official information is on the cloud. Combine it and you can be tracked by both good and bad state players. Even if you are not on social media, your friends and relatives could be on it and put your information and pictures. It was reported that certain social media sites kept records of such “indirect” accounts too.
Your mobile knows what you are: Your mobile knows where you are all the time. So does the Big Tech company making it easier for the government. But more important than “where you are” is the fact that the mobile knows what you are. It knows how much time you spend looking at the screen, what you like and dislike, how much you spend, all the apps that you have installed, how you use them and for how long. It has a rough idea of your personality and your social status. Your mobile is now actually your biggest surveillance device.
Contact tracing is now legit: In the pre-Corona era if you heard that the government was coming out with an app that you would have to download that would keep track of you as part of a national database then you would have either laughed or agitated on the streets. But now the whole world is accepting contact tracing without much fuss. Contact tracing may become compulsory in the future too, if you want to be part of a government department, travel or if epidemic scares keep happening. It’s the case with all technology, good or bad. Once it gets a foot in the door, it takes over the entire house.
Snooping at source: There are scary stories of intelligence agencies installing spyware at the time of the manufacturing of a mobile phone compromising the device. But then this kind of snooping can be done at any stage. It can be done when you download any app or leave your phone unguarded. NSA whistle blower Edward Snowden demonstrated how easy it was during a live interview where he compromised a mobile in real time as a demo. Again, unlike a desktop or laptop, the mobile has truly penetrated every class in every country of the world. Your mobile is with you all the time, even when you are sleeping or when you go to the bathroom.
The buy everything online policy: People give out a tonne load of information on social media. Their mobile devices know everything about them. But the increasing trend to rely on ecommerce for all manner of purchases also gives out your financial details means that that much more of your profile is out there for you to see. Groceries. Dinners. Holidays. Small and big-ticket purchases. All are being done increasingly online.
Snooping devices on the rise: While Siri was a virtual assistant on the iPhone, soon these took a life of their own with the likes of Google Home and Alexa. If the data revolution and mobile were not enough, now we have home assistants that can listen to you all day. The Amazon Ring was a doorbell with a camera that could detect criminals outside your home and even alert the police. Then came an indoor version so there was video capture with an audio. There’s one version that has a flying drone that survey your entire home! Quite handy! but all the information of your home also sits in some faraway server! And this is data collection 24X7 in real time!
Will power Smart Work From Homes (SWFH): While both Smart Homes and Work From Homes have been around for some time, the Covid era will push Smart Work From Homes and in the long run they will invariably be powered by the above mentioned home assistants. With a smart TV, smart fridge, smart vacuum cleaner… smart everything, the “s” in smart homes could well stand for surveillance.
Facial recognition works for States: As mentioned before, the Chinese have taken facial recognition to the next level so much so that it has become a central tenet of governance there. Now there is no escaping for both criminals and citizens who have committed even minor offences. London used to be the CCTV camera capital of the world crossing half a million some time back. But China has taken a clear lead with many cities having more than 1 million cameras each.
With the Covid crisis, expect all major airports and city centres of the world to adopt cameras with greater gusto and that tech will slowly spread throughout the interiors of every country. The cloud revolution is enabling this and everything else and storing and accessing tremendous amounts of data is becoming easier by the day. There is even something called Video Surveillance as a Service (VSaaS).
Facial recognition is a very popular form of payment, because it is so easy. It is even easier than mobile money. That’s the thing about most of these technologies. Their ease of use makes life so much better, but they come with a rider and that’s your privacy.
Drones: Cameras are numerous but fixed. That way even one drone can cover a large area. While drones have multiple applications, one of them is surveillance and they can go almost everywhere. There are drone surveillance companies and in America recently multiple cities were under drone surveillance during the protests.
Even your car can spy on you: Driverless cars are imminent, connected cars are already here and soon they will dominate the market. So that means already someone knows where your car is, where it is headed to, whether it is speeding or not and whether it has broken other traffic rules or not. You may not be surprised to know that there is an Amazon Ring version for your car too.
So can your watch: That’s another hot market. Wearable IoTs which can monitor your physical health and track your jogging routes. It is beneficial if you have that for your health insurance and going forward it could become compulsory. But then that’s just one more device that knows where you are and transmits data about you.
IoT devices are humongous: IoT (Internet of Things) devices are already more than the population of the world. The upper limit for 2030 is 500 billion such devices. That means soon you will have IoT devices all around you, in your home, in the streets, transmitting data about various things 24X7.
5G will make it even more pervasive: 5G will have smaller, closer towers, with greater bandwidth and will have the capacity to power even more devices. That means the surveillance web will be tightly packed and fast when 5G finally comes.
RFID microchips: Another way of monitoring people is RFID (Radio-frequency identification) microchips. While they are being used for limited medical and identification purposes, one doesn’t know how widespread they will be in the future. RFID tags are already widespread and if you have them on any of your products, they can be monitored.
Not even one industry will be spared: In the past some industries relied heavily in tech and others not so much. But in the era of rapid digitization and technological acceleration, no industry is spared. With disruptions like Covid and social distancing problems that lead to less workers, even small factories will have to rely on high level tech automation.
Industry 4.0: All that leads to Industry 4.0 and we will have smart cities consisting of smart factories, smart offices, smart homes, smart cars, smart utilities… This means that no matter where you are, at home, in the office, or on the street, you cannot escape the prying eyes of technology. For hackers there are multi-point opportunities and they no longer have to hack the fort of the main server. They can attack the network layer or app layer.
Superior Data Analytics and AI: One valid point is that if you have tonnes of data of billions of people, who has the time to sift through it? But with analytics getting better all the time and the increasing use of Artificial Intelligence, it is much easier to handle the data. The main thing is the storage of data and later, specific things can be searched at will. The Utah Data Center is a separate township owned by the US government with its own power plant. It can store data in the form of exabytes (1 exabyte = 1 million terabytes) for private emails, mobile call records and other data related to citizens and consumers. Snowden revealed the scope of PRISM which could monitor and search the online activities of citizens in real time.
US artist and filmmaker Andy Warhol declared in the late 1960s, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes”. That led to the term “15 minutes of fame”. This is coming true with the advent of social media and ever-changing daily trends. But one smart alec quipped: In the future we will be lucky if we get 15 minutes of anonymity!