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The internet is evolving into a global surveillance system. Deal with it.


When China revealed it was using technology to rank every citizen with using a social credit system, it instantly conjured up images of a Black Mirror episode. In India, news that the government was building a blockchain-based DNA database of all its citizens followed the big brother narrative.

However, in a list of the world's most-surveyed cities with the number of CCTV cameras per 100 people, it was revealed that London had more cameras than Beijing. The US also has over 50 million CCTV cameras installed, and facial recognition has been banned in San Francisco as the reality of a global surveillance system begins to hit home.

Despite this increasing awareness, smart devices were a huge hit over the holiday season as global citizens continue to fill every room in their homes with always-listening microphones. On the outside, Amazon's Ring Doorbells are always watching and listening. But news that Police departments had partnered with Amazon was a wake-up call that even a doorbell can play a crucial role in a global surveillance system.

A few years ago, it was revealed that the UK government could access the browsing history and most-used apps of every citizen for up to 12 months. In a digital world, authorities across the globe are increasingly forcing tech companies to access its citizen's data and obtain their web history and call data without the need for a warrant. 

How did we get here? The reality is most people reading this will protest their privacy is important to them. But their actions choose convenience over privacy every time. Even if you avoid social media, you will still have an online identity that reveals a surprising amount of information about who we really are behind closed doors.

Sure the genie is out of the bottle, and global surveillance is unstoppable. But contrary to popular opinion, a dystopian future is not inevitable, and there are several ways that we can make the bitter a little easier to swallow.

Why corporations are to blame

It all begins with the ISPs that feed the internet into our homes. The removal of net neutrality in the US highlighted how ISP's biggest motivations are the partnerships with influential data brokers rather than their users. A combination of AI and machine learning can now turn the deluge of data that we all create each day into valuable insights around both our online and offline behaviors. 

The old saying, "just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you," feels more relevant than ever. ISPs and advertisers are performing digital alchemy that turns your tweets, status updates and browsing history into gold. Every click of a mouse and swipe of a touchscreen can enable governments and corporations to judge and work against you.

If your favorite online service is free, you also need to accept that you are probably the product. As consumers, we need to acknowledge that the mouthwatering prospect of the real-time personalization is designed for maximizing profit rather than our well being. 

The secret to digital freedom begins by understanding that your favorite media site, social media platforms, and search engine, has an objective to play you like a Vegas slot machine. We have replaced mindlessly inserting coins into a slot by endlessly scrolling down a never-ending newsfeed. 

The principle remains the same, and your undivided attention remains the ultimate goal. The good news is that once you know how the game is played, you can break free from the time-sucking digital shackles and ensure that you make informed decisions rather than relying on an algorithm to do it for you.

Why our governments are to blame

Governments across the world are challenged with the near-impossible task of protecting our lives, liberty, and happiness. Many are struggling to keep up with the pace of technological change, and there is an increasing argument that it's tech companies that now have the power and control that many leaders crave.

Over the last few years, the global community has witnessed first hand the dangers of domestic election interference and social media surveillance. As we enter a new decade, more and more governments are turning to regulators to reign in Mark Zuckerberg and tech behemoth Facebook.

However, after the unexpected results in the US presidential election and Brexit referendum in the UK, manipulation of social media news feeds can also work in their favor. Spreading propaganda or disinformation across social media is proving to be even more effective than censorship.

Populist soundbites that exploit human nature with sophisticated computer algorithms can create more favorable outcomes on election day. The surveillance that is put into place to protect its citizens can also work against them. But are they entirely to blame? It's not as simple as saying that governments and corporations are the ones to blame. 

In reality, nobody thinks they are the bad guy, and for the most part, we all set out with honorable intentions based on personal worldview. Many of the problems have been unwittingly created after playing with sophisticated technologies without thinking about future consequences.

The rise of the digital battlefield

In their naivety, our digital masters have become even more vulnerable than we are as users. The combined efforts of governments and big businesses to bring their nation into the 21st century by building smart cities on a new online critical infrastructure look worryingly vulnerable too.

The so-called fifth wave of computing promises to transform supply chains and build smart cities based on data-driven insights. The problem with this vision of an always-online digital world is the security vulnerabilities that could take entire cities offline.

When the internet first arrived in our lives, it began tearing down geographical borders and bring the global community. But as society becomes more fragmented and divided, many believe that splinternet trend is growing as governments attempt to fence off the World Wide Web into a series of national Internets.

The super information highway began as one huge fast lane for the global community to have the same access. Although technology works best when it brings people together, we are in danger of creating a digital iron curtain. When you combine the demise of net neutrality and the rise of the so-called splinternet, it's easy to see how we could be heading into a bleak future and revisiting the dark side of our history.

Modern warfare is much more likely to involve malware attacks on the connected physical infrastructure and smart cities. Five years have passed since the first power grid cyberattack on Ukraine that shut off power for 225,000 citizens during the holiday season. But rather than addressing these risks, many countries are still bringing critical infrastructure online.

However, the Russian government is taking a different approach by successfully testing the disconnection of the entire country from the worldwide internet to protect national security. These tests highlight the importance of ensuring our smart cities are adequately protected and less vulnerable to IoT-based cyber-attacks.

Legacy thinking is equally as damaging as the old technology preventing businesses from moving forward in a digital age. Without a future mindset, emerging technologies can go on to create even more problems than they set out to solve. We just need to think bigger than ourselves, our city, nation, and continent to progress forward as a global community.

A new hope

In 2020, we can expect this trend to continue as governments around the world begin to regulate and police the big tech companies that have become more powerful than entire nations. Despite our progress, we could dangerously be undoing all our hard work and unwittingly pave the way for a future internet that is controlled and regulated by different countries.

The internet has indeed evolved into a global surveillance system. But, unlike your social media timeline, it's not all about you. Third parties wanting to exploit your browsing history for personal gain is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Businesses, cities, governments, and entire nations are all under surveillance and battling a growing list of vulnerabilities.

We chose to open Pandora's box. In an age of media sound bites where tech makes it easy to spread disinformation. So, where do we go from here? Maybe we should start looking beyond your own immediate privacy concerns and look at the bigger picture. We are about to witness the convergence of emerging technologies such as AI, machine learning, 5G, and the industrial internet of things (IIoT) that can create unprecedented opportunities.

Beyond our own selfish concerns, it's the online freedom of every citizen in the global community that needs to be protected. For these reasons online, we all have a responsibility to bring digital human rights into the conversation as we begin a new decade. Isn’t it time you started thinking bigger than who is monitoring your personal timelines and browsing history?

Rather than shrugging your shoulders thinking, what can I do? Why not make an effort to break free from your self-imposed echo chamber in 2020 and stop endlessly scrolling through the information that is designed to control your attention?

Do you remember when Elon Musk sent a cherry-red Tesla Roadster into space and beamed back the iconic image with planet earth as the backdrop? That should have been the moment that we are questioned the art of the possible. As we enter a new decade, maybe we all need to upgrade our mindset too.

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