Automated Authoritarianism by John Robb
I recently did a series of interviews for an international venture investing newsletter called Capitalist Exploits. Here’s a question I got that I thought we be of interest to GG readers. I’ve extended the answer a bit from the original in the interview.
Mark: Switching gears just a bit… We’ve watched the SOPA/PIPA controversy, now its CISPA; the “Stellar Wind” project was featured in Wired last month, and recently an NSA whistleblower, former Director William Binney, came out and said flat out that the government is lying, they intercept and store everything we do, Constitution be damned. It seems the government won’t stop until it completely controls the flow of information on the Internet and has the ability to monitor and record everything we say and do online. You’re a counter-terrorism expert, how much of this is hype and how much of it is really necessary to safeguard national security, in your opinion. And what about our civil liberties and right to privacy?
John: It’s a mixed bag. There’s certainly lots of concern in regards to how the NSA gathers data on US citizens. Added to what the private sector is gathering, its safe to conclude that we don’t have any privacy.
For example, nearly every new phone sold today has a GPS chip in it. It’s constantly gathering data on where that phone is and sending it to the phone company. All of that phone company data, from all of the phone companies across the world, is aggregated and provided to select governments for use in counter-terrorism. In short, the three billion people that are using cell phones are being tracked in order to help find and kill a couple hundred terrorists (its contribution is probably limited to being the primary source for neutralizing a couple of terrorists a year).
What do they do with this data? All of the public and private data collected — from credit card purchases to library records to Internet usage to GPS cell phone data to EZPass info to aerial photos — is being constantly analyzed by computers for what is called a “terrorist profile.” This network analysis software is looking for patterns of activity that would indicate a specific person is a terrorist, or part of a terrorist cell. The problem with this analysis? It doesn’t work if you don’t have a starting point, a known terrorist, that you can work outwards from. If you don’t have a reference point, the analysis generates too many false positives to be of use.
This analysis gets really scary when you President can now designate any US citizen an enemy combatant without going through a judicial process. This Presidential list is the equivalent of hit list. What does it take to get put on this list? How big can this list get? Nobody knows. It’s probably safe to assume that this list will become increasingly automated over time with nearly zero human oversight (just guidance).
On top of all of this, killing people designated as terrorists is getting much, much easier. When I was in counter-terrorism, getting to the bad guys and back safely was risky. Every operation put dozens of people at extreme risk. Now, all you need is an armed drone. Armed drones are killing hundreds of people a day now in Pakistan. Drones, instead of troops and airplanes, are increasingly becoming the way the US controls the world. From a political perspective, using drones is nearly costless. No shot down pilots on TV. No body bags. All it costs is money, and less and less money as drones get smaller, smarter, and more deadly.
So, if you combine the automation of terrorist identification with an administrative “hit” list with automated drones that execute the order, you have a global killing machine. A machine that requires very few people to run and can kill almost anyone that triggers in in a matter of minutes.
What will be done with it? If we end up in a disorderly economic depression, as it increasingly looks like we will, we’re going get a good demonstration of what life under automated authoritarianism.
Last word. There’s also a whole host of laws and regulations that are aimed at restricting our freedoms in favor of the Intellectual Property mafia. They want the ability to censor everything we see and shut down web sites if there is even a whiff of IP infringement. Massive, automated censorship is going on now. Google blocks 300,000 URLs a week from its search results due to corporate pressure. Are all of these requests to block infringing content reviewed? No. It’s automated. It’s non-judicial. It’s simply corporate censorship.
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