Electronic Surveillance in the Information Age; Will ‘Big Brother’ supplant Democratic Principles?
Written by – Richard G. Wendel MD, MBA
It has often been said that Democracy is not a great system of governance but it is better than all the rest. Because most all Democracies, even within Parliamentary Systems, move at a snail’s pace, some observers might conjecture that a benevolent dictator or authoritarian regime could get things done in a more expeditious fashion to serve the common good. Unfortunately authoritarian power always corrupts and encroaches upon the rights of the people while at the same time morphing into a scheme to perpetuate that power. Over the millenniums, absolute power has always corrupted absolutely.
American liberty and freedom anchored in separation of powers, equality under the law and a strong Bill of Rights has enabled a mixture of immigrant cultures to blend into a melting pot and produce the greatest civilization the world has ever known. American Democracy has unleased the creativity and ingenuity of its citizens and brought with it prosperity and a high degree of equality.
One of my greatest concerns for American’s future is that massive campaign contributions are eroding democratic principles and social values within a representative system. Supreme Court rulings such as the Citizen’s United case plus the use of 501 © 4 nonprofit Civic Associations to conceal the origins of contributions has distorted the electoral process. As a result, it has given a small numbers of big donors and lobbyists excessive influence over the democratic process and forces politicians to strictly adhere to party lines and follow the money into the narrows of political polarization to get elected.
Before 1987, America’s Federal Communications Commission enforced the “Fairness Doctrine”, which required broadcasters to give equal time to opposing viewpoints on controversial issues. Even though media outlets today often claim to provide “fair and balanced” news coverage, this ‘equal time’ stance has become a relic of bygone eras. Today with 24 hour news coverage from radio, TV, emails, texting and social media the message is often slanted and laced with alternate facts, untruths and fake news that appeal to the opposite ends of the political spectrum. This makes it quite difficult to be an informed moderate. This ‘Group Think’ puts the kibosh on true bipartisanship and compromise that might oil the wheels of government to get something done.
Computer science has contributed to the polarizing tribalism between left and right as well. Some studies show that the majority of news is received from social media rather than traditional media sources. And social media tends to exacerbate the divergence of opinion into separate liberal and conservative camps in which your ‘friends’ and ‘connections’ are segregated to reinforce your particular viewpoints. Moreover, because social media is populated with open source posts, slanted and false commentary can emanate from any online user or, for that matter ‘bots’ from fake accounts. And talk radio and TV exaggerates this split in order to build loyalty within their viewing audience.
In summary, big money and Information Technology has introduced a degree of dysfunction into our Democratic processes that has muffled moderation, compromise and tolerance. Moreover, this turmoil acts as a barrier to recruiting highly qualified men and women to run for elected office, as this drift toward the Alt-Right and Alt-Left institutionalizes distrust and confrontation as the new normal. And this, in turn, produces the unrest and conspiracy approach that can be an enabler and facilitator of authoritarian regimes. This we will discuss later in the paper.
Communist China;The Real Threat to American Democracy
When I was a boy, my father often mentioned the ‘yellow tide’ that referred to the masses of Chinese people that would one day sweep west, much the same way that Gengus Khan and the Mongolian hordes did during the 13th Century. It seemed strange at the time because China was a 3rd world backwater country noteworthy only for its rich history. (It did invent gun powder) Later, between 1958 and 1962 with Mao Zedong’s disastrous Great Leap Forward additional skepticism arose about China’s ability to even be a member of the nation of civilized societies. And then when the Berlin Wall Came down and Russian Communism succumbed to the notions of perestroika and glasnost scripted by Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1990s, it seemed as if Communism would fade and democratic free societies prevail. The Communist ‘Domino Theory’ was discredited and it was postulated that the world’s other authoritarian societies would likewise evolve in the direction of more representative governments.
Communist China came under this umbrella of thoughtful optimism. It was widely held that China could not resist the appeal of Western culture and would evolve into a more Westernized country with an open market economy and a society with greater democratic rights. This assumption and the promise of unlimited cheap labor caused the West to open the door for China to integrate into the Global economic order.
Unfortunately, that expectation proved to be a Trojan horse that has given China equal footing with the West politically and economically but failed to redirect its authoritarian trajectory toward a free and open society. Confirmatory of this observation, Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Chinese Community Party, recently had the Chinese constitution changed to allow him to be President for life or as long as he chooses. And during his rule he has steered politics and economics towards repression, state control and confrontation. The Chinese government has evolved from just an authoritarian capitalistic country into a dictatorship with total state control.
In his ascent Xi has purged potential rivals, imprisoned free-thinking lawyers, and initiated an elaborate surveillance system to monitor and prevent deviance from state orthodoxy. The Chinese Government controls businesses as an arm of state power, encourages Intellectual property theft and subsidizes and protects numerous strategic industries that account for 40 percent of its foreign trade. China also leverages trade to punish its enemies and in 2018, it extended its outreach by providing 13 percent of total funds supplied to venture-capital–backed-companies in America. This amount of funding was only second to Europe’s contribution.
China is rapidly increasing its full range of defensive and offensive military capabilities with a published military budget in 2016 of $146 billion. It has aggressively pursued its territorial claims to artificially dredged islands in the South China Sea and Western Pacific and widened its claim to these alleged territorial waters. This aggressive action flew in the face of a July 2016, Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague ruling against the Chinese annexation. It is clear that China is blatantly trying to displace American power in the Pacific and across the Globe.
Then there is China’s ‘economic’ Belt and ‘silk’ Road initiative to develop economic inroads and infrastructure projects across the region into other parts of Africa and Asia. Hundreds of billions of dollars are appropriated for this initiative that comes with a high price tag and indebtedness for the countries that agree to play ball and take the investment by China. Invariably, as a part of the deal the recipient country is burdened with a stifling debt burden. And being in debt to the Chines feeds Chinese influence and graft. It is clear that China’s long range vision is to displace the influence of the Western powers across Asia and Africa as well as South America.
When economists analyze the Chinese financial system they draw a variety of conclusions. Some predict impending trouble with their unsustainable debt burden, a glut of government subsidized housing, excess manufacturing capacity, currency manipulation, fraud and the excesses of central planning. But with absolute Government control and a range of financial advisors trained in the West and homebred as well these seem to me to be manageable structural and economic problems. Indeed, some economists argue that the most efficient system may be a centralized one because of the emergence of ‘Big Data’ that allows tech firms and governments to “see” the entire economy and coordinate its management in a more logical systematic fashion. Thus, the commonly held notion that a centrally planned economy such as that you had in the Soviet Union will always fail due to misallocation of resources may not hold true today.
Our trade deficit with China in 2017 was $375.2 billion and China owns about 1.19 trillion in official US debt. Moreover, most all major world supply chains run through China. One troubling sector is electronics where 85 percent of the world’s supply is either assembled or manufactured in China. As a result the West’s commerce and debt burden is so heavily entwined with China that we find our economy in a straightjacket of financial and commercial partnership with China. The recent major disruptions in world markets when minor tariffs were imposed on a small portion of Chinese imports and higher tariffs are discussed attest to the strong interconnected relationship between American and Chinese commerce. At a minimum, this leaves us little leverage to peacefully insist on the adoption of American values, human rights and representative Democracy in China. And at the very least a trade war will precipitate a global recession and, quite possibly, a world crisis. Indeed, this clash of China’s totalitarianism dictatorship and the free democratic societies seems to be on a collision course.
Despite the profound disruption inherent in proactively dealing with the China problem, our government must move decisively on a bipartisan basis to recognize the threat and take definitive measures to contain and restrain China. It is no longer a matter of kicking the can down the road as we have for too long. As starters, we need to better protect our intellectual properties by using legal means to mitigate the sharing and theft of leading edge technology when our businesses wish to operate in China. This should include an initiative to encourage American firms to bring their advanced manufacturing facilities home plus regulating in the national interest the American firms that China can invest in and acquire. Secondly we need to negotiate multilateral trade agreements, defense treaties, collaborative arrangements and an enhanced supply chain with the full range of Pacific Rim and South Asia countries that surround China. Lastly, we need to leverage our foremost strategic advantage which is our buyer power and impose tariffs on imported Chinese products with a goal for imports to equal exports to China. This will unleash a costly trade war; the disruption and pain from which is a necessary price to pay for the defense of American liberty and freedom.
Any impulsive all out trade war would have serious ramifications. Thus, an incremental approach to readjust trade deficits, protect intellectual properties and form new alliances would be the imperative. There will be few winners and many vociferous short term losers. The American consumer will pay higher prices, supply chains will need to be reconfigured and some exporters such as the Midwestern farmer will suffer. In all probability the economy would shrink for a period of time.
However, our other trading partners are well position to step forward and benefit from focused trade barriers against China that aim to decrease the indebtedness and trade deficit with China. In fact, I am confident they would welcome it because many nations especially in South East Asia have a strong anti-Chinese bias. At the end of the day, an ounce of proactive prevention may be worth a pound of reactive cure in the years to come.
The Clash of the Two Systems:
The Chinese form of centralized control has some strategic advantages over our free system of government. Controlling the media with digital technology has been the game changer that enables continuous surveillance and control of the Chinese population. The Chinese ‘Big Brother’ just like a supercharged George Orwell’s dystopian ‘1984’, has perfected new tools to regulate the flow of information and introduce total asymmetry in information exchange at all levels of Chinese society.
In America, social issues are vigorously debated. But in China, how do you think the issues of gun control, abortion, privacy, discrimination, capital punishment, enhanced interrogation and immigration would be handled? Without the possibility for significant pushback, these controversial issues are and would be resolved by simple decree from the small ruling circle. Those dissenting would be punished, discredited or suppressed. As an example, look at the way the Chinese government implemented the one child policy to combat overpopulation. They used mandatory abortion, sterilization and withdrawal of rights and privileges for the families that did not comply. The Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989 is a glaring example of how Chinese Communism deals with dissent.
Strict authoritarianism has some advantages that exploit the human psyche as well. In general, human beings do not like ambiguity and uncertainty. The Chinese brand of Communism and dictatorship sets forth dogma that requires fealty and offers a singularity of purpose that borders on a religion. In Chairman Mao’s perspective it might be the new “opiate of the people” that displaces the needs for religious beliefs and values.
Thirty years ago without modern Information Technology to manage and censor the flow of information, this abrogation of human free speech would not have been as troubling as it is today. In fact, in the early days of the IT revolution as with the Arab Spring in 2010 in which the uprising spread via social media, cell phones and emails, it was conjectured that the Internet would promote free exchange of information and foster representative government. But today the Internet works and social media in reverse in China as it is fully controlled and monitored by the government.
In sponsored Chines ads and advertising in periodicals and all media outlets, the Chinese boast of putting their citizen’s ‘livelihoods first’, ‘addressing poverty’ and ‘seeking truths in the facts.’ They also brag about their rapid economic ascent and development. In the text and verbiage in this propaganda, individual freedoms, rights, liberty, justice and rule of law are never, never mentioned.
Since 1970, some two million Chinese have been educated in the United States and large numbers stayed to become American citizens. This trend seems to be reversing. According to The Economist, in 2016 more than 430,000 people went back to China after finishing their studies, nearly 60 percent more than in 2011. In the same period, the number leaving China rose by less than 40 percent. The opportunities offered by the robust Chinese economic expansion seems to override the importance of freedom and free speech.
To a Western observer it is difficult to fully appreciate the social and political ramifications of having limited access to divergent opinions and objective news reporting. In China, the Internet is controlled and vetted to insure that there is little variance from state orthodoxy. In China, Internet censors employ more foot-soldier than some armies. Also it is rumored that a new plan is in the works to impose a ‘social’ rating system that grades the compliance and worthiness of each of its citizens and links these ratings to a range of privileges including education and jobs.
America must wake up and confront this reality that in the Chinese controlled society; liberty, freedom and justice is being subverted to the enduring monotheism of a Communist Dictator. In China, limited freedom of expression is bestowed upon just the few spheres of economic and social life that do not challenge the authority of the Communist party. Unfortunately, the Information Superhighway is a major enabler of this state of institutionalized dictatorship. Indeed, the sustainability of tyrants is assured when all of the vestiges of a free society are cast aside by information control.
American exceptionalism is real but it is time to nurture this across the planet while there is time for our form of government to beat the competition. Isolationism, tariffs, sanctions, unilateralism, military saber rattling, unwelcoming walls plus skeletonizing the State Department, defunding the United Nations and WTO and withdrawing from the TPP and Paris Global Warming Accord are strategies that are self-defeating and drive other nations into the Chinese and opposing camps. We certainly need more soft power, accommodation and multilateralism to win the hearts and minds of our allies if we are to succeed. If Democracy and representative government is to prevail, our way of life must be salable and sustainable so that freedom and justice can outdistance authoritarian communism.
Increasing resources should be directed at maintaining America’s technological supremacy in the information age. There are many facets to this initiative that include a focus on STEM education, more money for scientific R&D and immigration policies that bring the best minds to our shores. Moreover we need to improve our policies that protect our intellectual properties.
Information and electronic technology is entering new realms of advanced robotics, artificial intelligence, drone and military drone swarms, 3D printing and quantum computing. These technologies were the grist for science fiction works twenty years ago. Despite Steven Hawkins admonition before his death about AI when he stated “I fear that AI may replace humans altogether,” I am not concerned that robots will develop ambitions and turn on the human race. However, I am concerned that robots with artificial intelligence will become the agents for the hegemony of tyrants. Robots may be the “big brother’ enforcers for an aspiring despot and this is just one more reason why America needs to retain its technological edge.
In earlier times before the digital revolution the private lives of Americans were just that, private. Photographs and family movies were special and filled scrap books and film reels depicting special occasions and watching children grow and mature. Meetings were private affairs and security cameras did not dot the entire landscape. The grapevine and hearsay were significant information sources and the inner sanctum of the home was not transparent to outsiders. When you took a trip you had to carefully follow the maps and detours were not uncommon due to navigational mistakes. Even public figures had private lives in which past indiscretions and skeletons remained in the closet for the most part.
The past twenty-five years has seen the sun rise on a new electronic era of surveillance. Today virtually nothing enjoys the sanctity of privacy and most everything we do is a part of a searchable database. The routs I travel in my car are traceable via GPS and the police have license plate scanners to access my public records and body cameras to document my movements should I be pulled over. The Internet shopping platforms track and aggregate my shopping habits and catalog my surfing to capture my preferences to offer me deals that match my tastes. Social media tracks my posts that give clues to my political beliefs and earmark them for political and governmental scrutiny. The NSA through cellular providers has a log of my cell phone calls and the Internet providers register my clicking around on the web and accordingly sell ad space to other platforms that post materials tailored to my interests. TV viewership is also tracked. Even with HIPPA regulations, my medical history can be accessed by many parties and an insurance company has only a modicum of difficulty in checking up to make certain I did not fabricate any medical condition when applying for insurance. Your Social Security number is contained in many documents. A cold Google search and social media usually provides the inquisitive person a snapshot of your education, employment, volunteer work and achievements. Moreover, your online banking history, credit card transactions and loans are electronically stored and pop up when your credit score is accessed to check for financial worthiness. And many permits, business registrations, media posting and death notices are just a few clicks away from being exposed to any party’s wondering eyeballs. And the government has much more information such as income tax forms and recorded business transactions.
Added to this feeling that your lack privacy is the dire reports of Internet hacking, scams and phishing that has caused a plethora of security firms to raise the alarm bells and enter the market to provide electronic internet security. Put it all together and one has a tendency to get alarmed, worried and even paranoid about their use of the Internet.
Then you have the new range of personal identifiers. Mug shots, blood types and fingerprints used to be the benchmarks for identification. Now we must add to that DNA analysis, iris scans and most importantly sophisticated and accurate facial and body recognition software programs.
Another privacy invasion is the ubiquitous security cameras in the home, on the streets and in public spaces. It is fair to say that we are being protected but at the same time spied upon most every minute of the day. In my opinion, the decline in the crime rates in major cities relates to this surveillance rather than a decrease in the criminal element and better policing. We are being watched and this causes the deck to be stacked against the shop lifter, mugger or rapist.
On the flip side, I greatly appreciate all of the benefits from the electronic revolution. When I was in school I would have grooved on a Siri or Cortana that provides instant answers to most any question you ask. I like the ease of shopping on line, electronic bill paying, emailing, and posting on social media and to web sites. The how to do this or that on YouTube and other sites helps in making home projects a breeze and the ease of travel provided by GPS and Google Maps insures that you never get lost. I like the personal security afforded by surveillance cameras and the ease of access to streaming entertainment videos and news sources. Plus simple and usually free apps enable you to store information and access the whole world of information to support your hobbies, collections and special interests. Indeed, the Internet is almost too good and has raised concerns that it is too addicting and impairs social interaction especially amongst our younger generation.
The Scary Part
The worrisome part of the electronic revolution is the privacy issue and its threat to freedom and independent actions. We have discussed the facilitating role that information control wields in the Chinese model. However, military coups or rebellions occur on a fairly regular basis in both the underdeveloped and developed countries. In these circumstances, Marshall Law is usually declared as the first action to rid the country of a corrupt government or as a simple power grab. To enshrine this take-over censorship, imprisonment of opposition leaders and journalists usually follows along with the expropriation of the broadcasting media outlets. Once in control, the Internet and social media are usually scrubbed of dissenters and then leveraged for propaganda purposes. The next step usually involves the assault or purge of the judicial system so as to make changes in the country’s Constitution to accept deviation from historic guidance and principles. During this process an external or internal enemy’s list is created and their threats to societal norms and the nation’s sovereignty exaggerated to justify the continued or increasing need for military law and the police state. A failing economy, terrorism, religious and ethnic differences may be the justification for heavy handed suppression. Once in power, this is generally followed by a rigged election to put the stamp of legitimacy on the new regime. Throughout this process the existing institutions are weakened or replaced and the security forces brought under strict control of the ruling junta. The steps along the road to dictatorship are remarkable similar in most cases.
Usually this chain of events toward authoritarian rule occurs in failed states. But in particular, China is not a failed state in terms of a stable society both economically and politically. By Western standards that include freedom and human rights but in China it equates to insuring a malignant status quo and sustainability supported by modern IT for total information control.
North Korea is another prime example where dictatorship is perpetuated by strict control of all media and constant surveillance of information exchange between its citizens. As a brutal oppressive state it ranks 180th out of 180 nations by Human Rights Watch. Internet access is prohibited to outside sources and all news is broadcast and filtered by state media. Despite the severe hardships imposed on the North Korean people, Kim Jong-un, the Supreme Leader, allegedly enjoys a high degree of popular support. The IT propaganda machine is the engine of this strange contradiction between reality and perception.
Heretofore, this usurpation of power would be less durable than it is today because the tools to control the information flow and instigate surveillance were not as perfected or sophisticated before the IT era. Then lives were more private and opposition groups could better remain hidden or protected. But today once a coup is stabilized the mastery of the electronic media ensures greater sustainability of a tyrannical power grab. The dictatorship in North Korea, the theocracy in Iran and the budding sectarian government in Turkey are good examples. Moreover, when there is a coup or internal conflict in a sovereign state, outside nations are usually reluctant to get involved and risk getting mired in the intrigue of regime change or even civil war. At the end of the day, the inherent societal forces that have historically evolved toward representative government and universal suffrage may fall victim to the instruments and platforms of the information revolution.
Does this road to dictatorship pose an increasingly threat to our American Democracy? Possibly, even as it seems unlikely or even impossible in our great land. But what if an unforeseen catastrophic event occurred? What if a cyber-attack disrupted our entire communications and power grid or military conflict came to American soil? What if the social discontent due to a rising disparity between rich and poor boiled over into the streets? What if climate warming accelerated with rising oceans and drought? Or the all-volunteer army revolted and displaced our democratically elected government? I am not a doomsayer but I guess it could happen and having a bunch of AR-15 or Mini-14 assault rifles in civilian hands would not prevent it.
I certainly hope it remains to some degree pure science fiction that robots, clones and drones with learning algorithms can displace humans altogether and perform both the usual and complicated tasks that comprise the majority of job descriptions for us ordinary human beings. Unfortunately, if robots take over, humans would be relegated to volunteer status or underemployment with serious psychological effects. In this grim scenario a totalitarian state could use information control and a system of guaranteed base pay incentives and disincentives to totally control the lives of their subjects. Freedom would be relegated to the history books.
I do not lose sleep worrying about the lives my grandchildren and great grandchildren. It is impossible to predict the future. Some young people are pessimists and forego or give excuses for not having children thinking that the future is too uncertain. I think the future is bright but society must deal with the longer term problems that the digital cyber world poses. Privacy and freedom of information exchange need protection to ward off ‘big brother’.