One of history’s hard lessons is that collapsing financial systems beget authoritarian politics…
Today’s world, alas, is following this script, as rising debts lead to wrenching political changes in nearly every country that holds free elections, while fascism and socialism are once again being taken seriously by people who in normal times would inhabit the political center.
But there’s one big difference this time around: the advanced state of social control technology. Past governments, when trying to tamp down dissent, were limited to blunt-instrument policies like curfews, phone taps and press shutdowns. Today’s would-be Big Brothers can do vastly more, and in many cases will use the coming financial/political emergency as an excuse to place Orwell’s proverbial boot on their citizens’ necks.
Some examples from a recent Wall Street Journal article titled The Autocrat’s New Tool Kit:
- Chinese authorities are now using the tools of big data to detect departures from “normal” behavior among Muslims in the country’s Xinjiang region—and then to identify each supposed deviant for further state attention.
- The Egyptian government plans to relocate from Cairo later this year to a still-unnamed new capital that will have, as the project’s spokesman put it, “cameras and sensors everywhere,” with “a command center to control the entire city.”
- Moscow already has some 5,000 cameras installed with facial-recognition technology, and it can match faces of interest to photos from passport databases, police files and social media.
But scary as these things sound, they’re crude compared to what’s coming. From the same WSJ article:
“Microtargeting” enables governments to build personality assessments of citizens and tailor propaganda for targets’ psychological weak spots. Russia’s Internet Research Agency reportedly harvested data from Facebook to craft specific messages for individual voters during the 2016 US presidential race. Private firms are developing artificial intelligence that can automate this customization for whole populations.
Bots – algorithms that emulate human posters – will soon be indistinguishable from humans online, which is to say capable of denouncing anti-regime activists, attacking rivals and amplifying state messaging in lifelike ways.
Deep fakes. It is now possible to create images, voices and videos that are virtually indistinguishable from the real thing. Targets will have no way of knowing whether what they’re seeing and hearing is real or a government-generated fake.
AI profiling. Artificial intelligence is learning to extract “attitude, emotion and intent” from our social media posts, giving governments the ability to see dissent coming before it can coalesce into unrest.
Extremely smart cards. Venezuela has introduced its own “carnet de la patria” (fatherland card), a smart-chip-based piece of identification that citizens need to get access to government services such as health care and subsidized food. Human Rights Watch reports that the card may capture voting history as well.
Super-human facial recognition. We’re good at recognizing familiar faces. Tomorrow’s computer networks will be vastly better. Already, the Chinese have deployed facial-recognition glasses, and are selling the tech in Africa and Europe. Such glasses can be used to help identify criminals like thieves and drug dealers—or to hunt human-rights activists and pro-democracy protesters.
Smart cities. Combine the Internet of Things with Big Data analytics and you get entire cities where cameras cover every outdoor inch and using public services like busses require biometric ID. Some Chinese restaurants already have “smile to pay” systems that interpret facial expressions.
As the Journal sums it up,
“The internet dispersed data, but new technological advances can concentrate its power in the hands of a few. With more than 30 billion devices expected to be connected to the internet by 2020, each one generating new data, those who can control, process and exploit the information rush will have a major advantage. A regime bent on stability may feel virtually compelled to do so.”
Preparing to the next financial crisis requires a little more thought than for those of the past. How do you preserve wealth when a panicked government can identify, track and debit financial accounts? How do you preserve freedom of thought, association and action when even your seemingly private conversations and social media interactions are flowing into automated profiling algorithms?
Obviously, gold and silver coins become vastly more valuable in this world as a means of private wealth storage and anonymous transaction. Geographic diversification (i.e., storing wealth in different countries) lessens the odds of complete confiscation by any one government. And finding ways to evade the emerging surveillance state is crucial. Here are a couple of books on the subject: