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 Democracy moves at a snail’s pace, some observers might conjecture that a benevolent dictator could more expeditiously get things done 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 unleashed the creativity and ingenuity of its citizens and brought with it prosperity and some measure of equality. Granted, there are social problems that remain to be resolved, but in our free society the forces of change to rectify structural inequalities and injustices have a platform upon which to operate and progress to meet the needs and wants of the electorate.
My greatest intrinsic concern 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 relatively small number of big donors and lobbying groups undue influence over the democratic process. This has caused a disruptive polarization of our politics in which candidates must strictly adhere to the party line or else lose financial and grass roots support in the primary elections. Money rather than mission has become the opioid addiction for elected officials.
Before 1987, America’s Federal Communications Commission enforced the “Fairness Doctrine”, which required broadcasters to give equal time to opposing sides on controversial issues. Even though media outlets today often claim to provide “fair and balanced” news coverage, this ‘equal time’ stance has become a rarity in broadcasting. Today with 24 hour news coverage from radio, TV, emails and social media the reporting is quite slanted and laced with alternate facts, untruths and fake news that appeal to the opposite ends of the political spectrum. In my inbox I receive emails from UnfilteredPatriot and Total Conservative that are two ultra conservative organizations. The content of their messages are pure fiction and spin with no objective discussion of the complexity of the issues. They are Rush Limbaugh on steroids. The National Review magazine, however, has excellent articles and I feel sorry for their editors as the new polarized media marketplace has given them an identity crisis.
And once this political sorting takes place with daily reinforcement via FOX or CNN it causes resistance to any rethinking of viewpoints based upon the facts. Illogical as it may seem, the distortions of alternate facts can rationalized or justify most any stance. And within social groups, Group Think is a much easier pathway to take than putting the time and effort into becoming informed plus taking pushback from your friends and even family. Moreover, this media divergence seems to result in a feeding frenzy that enhances the shifts to either the right or the left leaving the middle vacant. Realistically this polarization must put the skids 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, fake news and slanted commentary can emanate from any online user or, for that matter ‘bots’ of fake accounts that do not represent an individual. E-mails are likewise tailored to liberal or conservative causes and sent selectively to constituents with similar beliefs. And talk radio and TV news have followed this polarizing evolution to attract and build loyal followings.
In summary, big money and Information Technology has introduced a degree of dysfunction into our Democratic processes and this has resulted in the muffling of moderation, compromise and tolerance as avenues for consensus building and dealing with the complexity of governance. Moreover, this turmoil acts as a barrier to recruiting and retaining highly qualified men and women for elected office. The drift toward the Alt-Right and Alt-Left promotes and institutionalizes distrust, conspiracy and confrontation as the new normal.
China, The Real Threat
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.
Chinese Communism came under this umbrella of thought. 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 economically but failed to redirect its 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. It also leverages trade to punish its enemies. With an expanding military and claims to artificial islands in the South China Sea and Western Pacific it is clearly trying to displace American power in the Pacific and across the Globe.
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 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. They do not represent an imminent threat to the Communist dictatorship.
Our trade deficit with China in 2017 was $375.2 billion and China owns about 1.19 trillion in official US debt. As a result the West’s commerce and debt burden is so heavily invested in and indebted to China that we are in the straightjacket of financial partnership with China. This leaves us little leverage to sell or impose American values and lead China down the path to improved human rights. A genuine tug of war between the totalitarianism dictatorship of China and the free democratic societies will only get worse and in my view represents a serious threat to the representative governments in the world and perhaps the values at the heart of Democracy.
In view of this asymmetry in trade and debt that adds fuel to Chinese expansionism with such projects as the Belt and Road initiative, it would seem appropriate for our government to recognize this grave threat and craft ways to reverse these two asymmetries that bind our economy to China. The first and simplest is to better protect our intellectual properties by using legal means to restrain the sharing 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 and putting curbs on what American firms China can acquire. Second would be the adoption of multilateral trade agreements and collaborative arrangements with the full range of Pacific Rim and South Asia countries that surround China. Lastly and most controversial would be imposing tariffs on imported Chinese products with a goal for imports to equal exports to China. This would probably start a trade war. However, because we import much more from China than we export to China, we have buyer’s power and this does give us a strategic advantage.
These measures would create major pushback from many vested interested parties. Because short term objective generally trump longer-term objective in American politics, the politics might be unpalatable unless there was a well-orchestrated marketing program. The ripple effects would be huge and there would be a few winners but probably more short-term losers. Many would suffer including the American consumer, Iowa farmers, the supply chain and some manufacturers. In all probability the growth of the American GDP would decline for a few quarters and push the economy into a recession.
However, our other trading partners are well position to take up the slack and benefit from focused trade barriers aimed at decreasing 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 an 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 the flow of information, this abrogation of rights 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 in reverse in China as it is fully controlled by the government.
In periodicals, ads and propaganda, 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 in these articles, individual freedoms, rights, liberty, justice and rule of law are never once mentioned.
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. 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.
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 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.
North Korea is a prime case study in dictatorship 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.
Other regimes such as Russia, Venezuela and Turkey also may be headed down similar pathways. In these countries, populism and nativism have surfaced to enshrine oppressive governments that maintain control through 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 we are to prevail, our brand of democracy needs to be more functional, cohesive and moderate.
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 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 why it is so critical that America retains 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.
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 this electronic revolution remains the privacy issue but also a threat to human rights. 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 appropriation 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 Democratic 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 need for 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 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 it does not measure up and this malignant status quo in China is rooted and supported using modern IT for information control.
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 all of our communications 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 pure science fiction that robots, clones and drones with learning algorithms could perform the usual tasks that comprise the majority of job descriptions for ordinary human beings. Unfortunately, if that were the case, 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’.