Electronic Surveillance in the Information Age; Will ‘Big Brother’ threaten Democracy?
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 Fascist ruler could get things done in a more expeditious fashion to serve the common good. Unfortunately authoritarian power eventually 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.
But one of my greatest concerns for American’s future is that massive campaign contributions are distorting the electoral process. The Supreme Court rulings in the Citizen’s United and the SpeechNow.org case plus the use of 501 © 4 nonprofit Civic Associations to conceal the origins of large contributions has increasingly forced politicians to ‘follow the money’ and tow the line with the Super PACs in order to pass muster in the party primaries and get elected. This magnifies the influence that a few major donors have on the political process and also enables special interests with their droves of lobbyists to play an oversized role in the legislative process.
Before 1987, America’s Federal Communications Commission enforced the “Fairness Doctrine”, which required broadcasters to give equal time to opposing viewpoints on controversial issues. But this ‘equal time’ stance has become a relic of the past even as many stations claim to offer ‘fair and balanced’ news 24 hours a day. Slanted views have become the norm with political commentators and hacks touting the same biased messages that are amplified on the social media platforms such as twitter and Facebook. The new terms fake news, alternate facts and outright lies are ingrained in the opposite ends of the political spectrum. This bipolar disorder makes it quite difficult to be a moderate as ‘Group Think’ puts the kibosh on sincere bipartisanship. Today, this has made a mockery of representative government.
In summary, big money and reckless information exchange has had a profound polarizing effect on our Democracy because it has muffled moderation, compromise and tolerance. This has institutionalized distrust and confrontation as the new normal.
As we look to the future, this combination of factors may be the enabler of authoritarian government or even fascism in our native land much like we have observed in China.
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 developed and 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 projected 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 an evolution away from Communist Dictatorship to a society with greater democratic rights and freedoms. This assumption and the attraction of limitless cheap labor in China for manufacturing caused the West to open the door wide 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 mandated that all politics and businesses must be agents for the Communist party. With this chain of events, the Chinese government has transitioned from being an authoritarian capitalist nation into a Communist dictatorship with total state control and suppression of political freedoms.
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. It uses politicized regulations to bully trade secrets out of foreign firms and subsidizes and controls numerous strategic industries. Without traditional adherence to the ‘rule of law’ it places arbitrary barriers against competition from foreign businesses. China also leverages trade to punish its enemies. Curiously, in 2018 it extended its tentacles by providing 13 percent of total funds supplied to venture-capital–backed-companies in America.
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 their 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 usually carries with it a sizeable debt burden for the recipient countries. These projects that feed Chinese influence have produced mixed results.
When economists analyze the Chinese financial system they draw a variety of conclusions. Some predict impending trouble for the Chinese economy from a huge debt burden, a glut of government subsidized housing, slowing growth, excess manufacturing capacity, currency manipulation and fraud. The inefficiencies of controlled central planning Communistic system are also cited as a weakness. Others are not so sure about the inherent weaknesses in China’s economic system. They speculate that absolute Government control and a range of financial advisors trained in the West and homebred as well may give the Chinese economy some strategic advantages when compared with a free market system. They argue that the emergence of ‘Big Data’ and artificial intelligence that allows tech firms and governments to “see” the entire economy and coordinate its management may be a more efficient and stabilizing approach to micro and macro-economic forces. As a result, the commonly held notion that central planning like what was seen in the Soviet Communistic system 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 (mainly treasury bonds). 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 American economy in a straightjacket of financial and commercial partnership with China. The recent major unsettling of world markets when minor tariffs were imposed on just a small portion of Chinese imports exemplifies the strong interconnected relationship between American, Chinese and world commerce. This unwanted reliance on the world stage with China leaves us little wiggle room to lobby for or strongly encourage China to adopt the Western values of human rights, equality, rule of law and representative government.
Unfortunately, a Democracy with a free press and elections are at a distinct disadvantage in trade disputes that arise with authoritarian regimes. For instance, the press coverage given to the distressed farmers in the Midwest due to China’s boycotting soybeans imports is extensive and has profound political as well as financial implications. On the other side of the ledger, because the Chinese government controls all media and information exchange, they can suppress news coverage and public response. Moreover, they easily can spin the trade dispute as an American conspiracy explicitly designed to undermine China. The dictatorship does not have to worry about public dissent and can subsidize various industries, reallocate resources, arbitrarily impose restriction on American businesses in China and depreciate the value of the Yuan to buffer any trade disruption or dispute.
For the past 20 years, China has broken promises to follow the rules and guidelines of the World Trade Organization’s (WTO). They have also ignored previous trade agreements with the US to open markets, cease expropriating intellectual property and granting more equal treatment to foreign companies.
This leads America to the urgent need to consider other ways to level the playing field in a chronic trade dispute with China. One obvious strategy is to collaborate with other countries that are harmed or threatened by China’s aggressive commercial activities. Almost all of the countries in South East Asia harbor an engrained anti-Chinese bias based upon historical factors. Nurturing this anti-Chinese sentiment might make for many willing partners in pushing back on Chinese expansionism. That is why unilaterally pulling out of the TPP (Trans-Pacific-Partnership) agreement was detrimental to our interests. Granted, the TPP agreement had some flaws that needed further negotiation, but our abrupt exiting has weakened our relationship with many countries that encircle China. This, in turn, diminishes our ability to build alternative supply chains outside of China in the event of a trade war.
Moreover, a general trade philosophy that makes unilateral decisions without negotiation and collaboration with our allies and other trading partners weakens our position in addressing the imbalance in trade with China. Canada, Mexico, Japan, Australia, England and the European Union are important players if we are going head-to-head with China in a trade war and their endorsement and collaboration strengthens our position and additionally gives us greater leverage to address human rights and representative Democracy issues with China.
Unilateral actions such as pulling out of the Iran Nuclear Agreement and the Paris Climate Accord alienate our allies and weaken our trade position. Moreover, imposing economic sanctions on ‘rogue’ nations such as Iran, North Korea, Russia with little consultation with our allies that are then bullied into compliance through economic blackmail does little to enhance our international relationships and engender cooperation in trade negotiations. Likewise, unilaterally placing tariffs on the imports of steel and aluminum from our allies and violating WTO practices does not help in the ‘team building’ process upon which mutually beneficial trade deals evolve.
Trump may have ‘fallen in love’ with our adversaries Putin, Kim Jong-un and Xi Jinping but any rational person respects, admires and nurtures allies before heaping praise on our adversaries. Unfortunately, a cold-war-style discussion of human right violations seems to be of little interest to President Trump even as the Chinese cultural style of total population control and dictatorship threatens the tenants of Democracy and philosophy of representative government.
Regardless of the heretofore flawed process and economic consequences of confronting China, our government must undertake definitive measures to win the competition with China and frustrate China’s goals of displacing the United States as the planet’s superpower and steward of Democracy. We can ill afford to procrastinate. For starters, we must secure and protect our intellectual properties from theft and reverse engineering. As one of the prerequisites of doing business in China, American businesses have been required to share proprietary technology. This must stop. Steps based upon our rules and not empty Chinese promises to export technology gleaned from Chinese students enrolled in our academic institutions or working in research projects must be curtailed. American firms should be incentivized to bring their advanced manufacturing facilities home and Chinese investors prohibited from acquiring critical security enterprises in the US. Supply-chains for high tech products and consumer products should be outsourced from China to other allied nations or returned to US soil.
Additionally, we should try to renew efforts to achieve fair multilateral trade agreement with our Asian friends and discuss and implement mutually beneficial defense arrangements.
Lastly, we need to leverage our strategic advantage of our robust markets for consumer products and trade imbalances. Import tariffs on Chinese goods should afford bargaining power and also encourage American firms to relocate their manufacturing facilities. The objectives of negotiations should be to open up the Chinese market to American goods with an agreement on fair trade practices and the elimination of the trade imbalance between China and the USA. To limit the economic dislocation an incremental approach would need to be agreed upon.
Unfortunately, it is doubtful that China will come to the table and a costly trade war will ensue that will be painful. You need only look at the market’s response to very limited tariffs to appreciate the economic turmoil and probable worldwide recession. But it may be the price American’s need to pay for the defense of American liberty and freedom.
There will be a high political price to pay for any Administration in Washington that aggressively pursues the Chinese dragon. The American consumer is averse to paying higher prices. Many firms are heavily invested in China and will be subject to Chinese retaliation and lose their foothold that they patiently achieved during the past three decades. The major world markets will recoil and the disruption to worldwide supply chains, especially in electronics, will take years to recover and reconfigure. There will be some shortages in raw materials and components, and the American consumer will not be happy. The degree to which American and worldwide GDP shrinks can only be speculated.
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 of this strong anti-Chinese bias in South East Asia and China’s land grab in the Pacific and South China Sea. At the end of the day, an ounce of painful proactive prevention may be worth a pound of reactive cure in the years to come. With some luck a new cold war may be preventable.
The Clash of the Two Systems:
The Chinese form of surveillance and centralized control has some strategic advantages over our free system of government. The Chinese party controls all media and information exchange. This enables continuous surveillance of its citizens and the development of a national “social credit system” or “worthiness index” that assigns each citizen a score that also incorporates personal habits to link to doling out access to jobs, education, healthcare and entitlements. Indeed The Chinese ‘Big Brother’ just like a supercharged George Orwell’s dystopian ‘1984’ has perfected new tools to reward compliance and impose 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 or the rule of law, these controversial issues are and would be resolved by simple decree from the small ruling circle. Those dissenting are routinely discredited or punished. 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 and the suppression of protests in Hong Kong are glaring example of how Chinese Communism deals with dissent.
Strict authoritarianism affords more certainty to ‘politically correct’ thinking. This type of Chinese orthodoxy appeals to human nature that often dislikes ambiguity and dissension. Chinese Communism 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 spread the word and manage the flow of information, this abrogation of free speech would not have been as troubling as it is today. In fact, in the early days social media played a major role in the Arab Spring in 2010 to overthrow oppressive regimes. As a result, many conjectured that the new age of Information Technology would promote freedom of speech and foster representative government. But today the Internet and social media work in reverse in China as it is fully controlled and closely monitored by the government.
In the past two years, many Chinese sponsored op-eds and propaganda pieces have appeared in our American print media. In the promotional text, 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. However, there is a glaring lack of any mention of individual freedoms, human rights, liberty, justice and the rule of law.
Since 1970, some two million Chinese have been educated in the United States and 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 and research here: a nearly 60 percent increase from 2011. This may be attributable to the robust Chinese economic expansion and the fact that most visiting Chinese students stick together and this limits their exposure to the American way of life. Moreover, America’s politics of division and derision send a less than compelling message to foreign students and new barriers to immigration also handicap our ability to retain the best and brightest.
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 and Internet censors employ more foot-soldier than some armies. Also a plan is being implemented in China to impose a ‘social’ rating and credit system that continuously grades the compliance and worthiness of each of its citizens. As we mentioned before, these grades links to a range of privileges including education, access to healthcare, living quarters and jobs.
In China, roadside billboards list the rules of etiquette that intrude on personal preferences and diversity. Shops and businesses are graded on a scale of ‘Trustworthy Neighborhood Service Centers’ and recently China instructed video game makers to install software to track how much time minors spend online and banish kids who play more than two hours a day.
In summary, Information Technology is enabling a level of surveillance and mandated compliance in China that guarantees the survival of the omnipotent communist party. The concept of serving the party is firmly embedded in all aspects of society.
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 for our society to manifest more personal or soft power and nurture our allies across the planet. With the meteoric rise of China, time may be running out to win this cultural competition between Democracy and Dictatorship. Isolationism, 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 not winning strategies for America. The current Trump Administration seems intent on burning bridges of friendship with our allies and this will further nudge friendly nations into ignoring and accepting the abysmal human rights record in the Chinese model. Multilateralism and cooperation is a key to winning the hearts and minds of our allies if we are to succeed.
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 creative and 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 enforcers for the hegemony of tyrants. Robots may be the “big brother’ vehicle 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 stores my posts that reveal my political orientation and can be used for political, courtroom and governmental scrutiny. The NSA through cellular providers has access to a log of my cell phone calls. Google has my search history and sells ad space to other platforms that post or emails materials tailored to my interests. TV viewership is tracked and some home electronic devices have the capability to listen and record my activities in the home. 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 Google search using you name and social media accounts 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 by the bank to check for financial worthiness. And many permits, business registrations, media articles, nonprofit tax forms and board memberships and death notices are just a few clicks away. And the government has much more information such as tax filings, investment transactions and voting data. Add to this lack privacy Internet hacking, scams and phishing that have spawned a plethora of security firms that 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, of course, 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.
A swarm of security cameras maintain surveillance of our homes, worksites, elevators and public spaces. This gives added protection but at the same time we are observed most every minute of the day. Much of the decline in the crime rates in major cities may relate to constant surveillance rather than a decrease in the criminal element and better policing.
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 Google search, 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 when it is misused to threaten freedom and independent actions. We have discussed the facilitating role that information control wields in the firmly embedded Chinese model. However, military coups or rebellions occur on a fairly regular basis in both the underdeveloped and developed countries and subsequently follow a similar pathway. 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 Marshall Law and the police state. A failing economy, terrorism, religious and ethnic differences may be used as the justification for this 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. It is surprising for Westerners that even with a poor economy, shortages and famine experienced by 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.
In the past, these power grabs and emergence of ruthless dictators would be less durable than they seem to be today. Beyond a doubt, greater sustainability has been facilitated and enabled by the electronic era of new tools to control the flow of information and carry out intrusive surveillance. The mastery of the electronic media is the key to building the platform for tyranny. The study of the levels of authoritarian rule in North Korea, Iran, Turkey, Venezuela and China attest to the critical role Information Technology has played. Unfortunately, when dictatorship arises 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 trended toward representative government and universal suffrage fall victims to spurious and powerful information control.
Does this road to dictatorship pose an increasingly threat to our American Democracy? Can the Chinese culture imperil our culture? Possibly, even as it seems unthinkable in our great land. But the IT revolution certainly makes Democracy more vulnerable if an unforeseen or 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 resulting in a coup? What if climate change caused drought or famine? Or the all-volunteer army 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 of 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’.