While much of the world is focussed on the COVID-19 pandemic, the US Senate recently voted to expand its surveillance powers. As part of a reauthorization of the Patriot Act, law enforcement agencies such as the FBI and CIA can continue to look through the browsing history of American citizens without the need for a warrant.
Although it was arguably created with good intentions, some believe this is just the beginning of governments around the world using the coronavirus pandemic to usher in new surveillance measures. Some have even suggested that the Patriot Act enables those in power to spy on their political opponents without consequence.
An increasing number of techies are browsing the web through a VPN to prevent their ISP from tracking their online habits for these very reasons. But in this case, the FBI could request logs from your VPN provider, too. The smartphones and smart speakers armed with microphones, cameras, and tracking abilities can suddenly feel quite sinister. Are we paranoid? Or are there dark forces at work that don't necessarily have our best interests at heart?
Do you take the red pill or the blue pill?
In these uncertain times, movies such as 1984 and 12 Monkeys are beginning to feel like documentaries. As a result, many are beginning to question the illusion of their freedom. In the 1999 film, The Matrix, the character Morpheus offers the protagonist Neo the choice between taking a blue pill that will restore his experience of reality or a red pill that will reveal its true nature. Here in 2020, Elon Musk urged his 34 million followers to take the red pill.
Those that obliged quickly learned that there are now more CCTV cameras in London than in Beijing. The US government can spy on their browsing history and internet habits without a warrant while remaining quarantined in their home. Further research reveals any opinions that dare to drift from the official narrative are labelled as fake news or disinformation and removed immediately and even as a method of censoring dissent.
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As 24-hour rolling news channels attempt to control the narrative and spread fear, are governments really using the moments to increase surveillance powers? Many protesters believe that authorities are taking it a step further by using social distancing to curtail free speech. The further down the rabbit hole you dare to go, the world feels more confusing.
British filmmaker Adam Curtis highlighted in 2014 that this confusion is not an accident and actually a part of a new system of political control called nonlinear warfare. But the vast amounts of data on every member of the global community is now changing the political landscape again.
Is data the new nuclear power?
If you look back and join up the dots, it was Clive Humby, the mastermind behind the Tesco Clubcard, that first declared that data was the new oil in 2006. But it was TED speaker, James Bridle, who argued it was actually a new nuclear power that could do harm. Silicon Valley has already infamously used personal data to take advantage in nefarious ways, and now governments appear intent on doing the same.
Edward Snowden once said that "Arguing that you don't care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don't care about free speech because you have nothing to say." He went on to add, "When you say, 'I have nothing to hide,' you're saying, 'I don't care about this right.'"
Cloudflare recently reported that internet usage surged by 40 percent in Seattle during the pandemic's peak period. From the comfort of their homes, users continued to endlessly scroll down newsfeeds and distracted themselves with escapist entertainment. But we all need more than mindless repetition, three-word slogans, and agreeing 100% with the narrative and policies of our governments.
The technology that was developed to unite us, must never divide us.
The problem is that some are using the global pandemic as an opportunity to make a power grab. Personal data and browsing habits that are run through algorithms, as well as databases can be used to build a profile of who we are and predict our future actions. As a result, global citizens increasingly become more cautious with how they act online in case it is misconstrued or used against them.
A quick look on a Facebook newsfeed will reveal that many of your friends cannot be bothered to research anything important, but they will take a 15-minute quiz to find out what kind of vegetable they are. In a digital world where every form of communication, transaction, and movement can be monitored, we can no longer afford to sleepwalk our way through life.
It is often said that technology works best when it brings people together, but it currently feels like we are losing our way. Binary thinking is resulting in polarization and driving a wedge between communities rather than uniting them. Authorities asking users to film non-compliant citizens and turn people against each other during a crisis is beginning to feel a little too reminiscent of an Orwellian nightmare for comfort.
A new hope
Future generations will be affected by what we do next. But there is hope. When Mayor Bill de Blasio urged New Yorkers to use the technology on their smartphones to snitch on social distance rule-breakers, communities united in flooding the service with dick pics and memes. The scale of the response forced the city to shut down the service temporarily.
Is there evidence that mass surveillance programs enable governments to protect citizens and save lives? Or do they run the risk of being used as a tool to discredit anyone that authorities deem to be a threat? These are all debates that we should all be having. Contrary to popular belief, the future doesn't belong to those that mindlessly obey every instruction. Being armed with a curious mind and the need to ask questions should be a good thing.
It's very easy to feel comfortable consuming content from an echo chamber that spoon-feeds your opinions back to you. But this world is a stark contrast to Apple's Think Differently campaign in 1997 that celebrated the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, and the round pegs in the square holes that wanted to change the world for the better.
So, will you choose to take the red pill or the blue pill?