2011 December 24 Saturday
Government Total Recall On Past Communications

UCLA electrical engineering prof John Villaseno thinks the growing capacity of computers to collect, store, and analyze data will enable governments to assess, track, and draw connections between dissidents on a scale previously not seen. Thanks Lou Pagnucco who, no doubt, will be tracked by multiple governments as a result of this sentence I've written to thank him.

These regimes will store every phone call, instant message, email, social media interaction, text message, movements of people and vehicles and public surveillance video and mine it at their leisure, according to "Recording Everything: Digital Storage as an Enabler of Authoritarian Government," written by John Villaseno, a senior fellow at Brookings and a professor of electrical engineering at UCLA.

As the cost of computer disk storage and other storage media continue to plummet the amount that governments can record goes up. Storage costs have fallen so far that the amount that can be captured about each person and kept long term has gotten pretty detailed. In the future the amount that can be recorded and stored per person will undergo more doublings. Every phone conversation that takes place will be able to be captured and stored for decades.

Since today even handheld smart phones can translate spoken words into text it is reasonable to expect governments will be able to capture all spoken conversations, translate them all into text, and then use sophisticated software to analyze the conversations for meaning.

When a government decides someone is of interest as a potential trouble maker that government will be able to quickly analyze every phone conversation (and a large fraction of all online text conversations) that person ever participated in . Then threat assessment software will assess the threat posed by the citizen who is critical of the regime. A retrospective approach is not the only possibility of course. A political threat profile could be maintained that gets continually updated with the latest movements, utterances, and purchasing decisions.

Of course some people already post their most controversial thoughts online under their real names. Others try to hide behind pseudonyms. That will hide your identity from most observers. You can even block cookies. But your usage of IP addresses (used for routing messages across the internet) provides a way for at least governments and telecommunications companies to figure out who you are.

What's not clear to me: In the long run will the net outcome of greater ability to do electronic communications do more to empower government or to empower citizens? Will bands of citizens more effectively control government? Perhaps in some countries. But even if some groups of citizens manage to use the internet to control their governments more effectively doesn't preclude the possibility of more effective government control of yet other groups. We might just have tighter loops of control with various groups constraining each other and the masses more effectively.

By Randall Parker    2011 December 24 10:51 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (15)
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