In this blog, I have been asked to discuss why a balanced perspective is required to understand the complexity of surveillance processes and practices. But the breaking news right now in the surveillance world is The UK Parliament’s Uighur tribunal has now concluded the persecution of the Uighurs consitutes genocide. This is occurring in the world’s foremost dystopian totalitarian surveillance situation, the Xinjiang province in China.
Firstly, I want to take a moment to reflect on the extent to which surveillance technologies have already integrated into our own everyday lives. With smartphones, computers, smarthomes now, camera doorbells, surveillance cameras in workplaces, schools, on the street…our lives have been “minutely detailed” by surveillance technologies already.
Every day we’re surrendering ever more of our autonomy and identity to these devices, and accepting ‘increased convenience’ and a perception of ‘safety’ in return. But who are we afraid of in the first place? Each other? I think perhaps we’re not appreciating the full, real and present threat surveillance processes and practices pose in themselves.
In 1977, in an essay entitled “In Plato’s Cave” it was written “…there is something predatory in the act of taking a picture…seeing [people] as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.”
Some say surveillance is a tool, like a gun or a nuclear weapon. That, it depends on the intentions of the user. But have you noticed both guns and nuclear weapons also, have always found their way into the ‘wrong’ hands, time and time again? It’s almost as if ‘tools’ with huge potential for harm and the ‘wrong’ hands seem magnetised towards each other…
Do we understand the realistic consequences of having our “privacy” taken away? Or is it still too abstract a concept for the everyday citizen to conceive of? In researching for this blog, I found myself stunned and only part-way able to understand the oppressive surveillance affecting minorities in surveillance states, like China and Israel, today.
The balanced perspective required to understand complexity in general cannot be achieved with one sided information. Humans need to be able to access alternate viewpoints and witness debate on topics. In the absence of full information, public opinion can be both monitored and manipulated by tech corporations and governments alike. Often the sharing of information gathered through surveillance is done with the stated intention of preventing terrorism. This is what’s happening in China.
China is now the global leader in surveillance technology, using artificial intelligence, facial recognition and algorithms to aggregate and interpret big data. China now sells ‘intelligent monitoring systems’ and advice on how to ‘guide’ public opinion to dozens of countries worldwide. China does this with built-in finance available for developing nations.
China has over one million citizens currently detained in ‘re-education’ camps simply because a big-data-reliant-computer-algorithm has perceived them as ‘potentially dangerous’. None of them have been before a court. Dissent and rebellion are no longer tolerated in this surveillance totalitarian state. However, the majority of Chinese citizens, the Han Chinese, remain compliant and accepting of the 24/7 surveillance, owing to a lack of balanced information. Han Chinese are being subjected to the social credit system, which removes social privileges for nonconformity. But whilst they’re distracted paying and acting their way to into favour, they’re largely unaware of the bigger picture. This gamification of everyday life is the basis for the Chinese social credit system (explained in more detail in the video below).
The situation in China with segregated surveillance being leveraged at the Uyghur ethnic minority group has stolen the spotlight as it involves the intersection of so many modern themes. Fear of terrorism. Large-state-owned enterprises and multinational tech companies supplying surveillance equiptment. Data sharing between big-tech and government. Human rights breaches and persecution involving for-profit initiatives. There is no denying some of the most atrocious abuses involving data are occurring in China today.
This video basically explains China’s social credit system and how surveillance is being leveraged against the minority ethnic group, the Uighurs, in the Xinjiang province (formerly East Turkestan).
Historically, when those in power were corrupt and did not serve the best interests of the people, dissent would lead to rebellion, revolution even. Those in power have traditionally been able to be overthrown by the people they serve. But intelligent surveillance monitoring of people threatens citizens’ voice and ability to disagree with those in power.
Whilst surveillance of citizens is absolute, so is the lack of government transparency. The main benefits of surveillance are for those in power. If you know everything about all citizens, you can quash dissent before it even begins. The intelligent monitoring systems in place currently are giving rulers the ability to maintain power, exploit resources with impunity and control access to information.
It is very hard to keep a balanced perspective, the more you learn about intelligent surveillance systems. It appears this issue centres around fear and trust, and it becomes scarier as you learn how the latest surveillance technologies, can enable those in power to choose not only what, but who will be tolerated.
Surveillance systems seem to be most accepted in a society where fear is high and trust is low. Ironically, these same trust issues are what foiled the plan to build a ‘safe’ and ‘sustainable’ surveilled city from scratch in Quayside Toronto. People didn’t trust Google parent company Alphabet’s subsidiary company, Sidewalk Labs’ proposal! I wonder why that is…
Perhaps fear really is the root of all the world’s woes. Perhaps the Franklin D. Roosevelt quote from his 1933 inaugural address is more true today than ever “There is nothing to fear but fear itself’.
Without our fear, we couldn’t be sold the surveillance.
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