Google might just have built the internet of tyranny

At Google’s most recent glitzy presentation, at it’s “I/O” developers conference, the company showed off new apps and features for many of its products, but what was most striking was the technology underlying it. Building on what it has shown previously, it demonstrated how advanced its machine learning techniques were, specifically their ability to understand and process natural language. And as Google Photos ably demonstrates, the technology is already increasingly good at recognising objects in photos.

Google might just have built the internet of tyranny

Moments after demonstrating this level of intelligence, the company revealed a new product called Google Home. This is a speaker that sits in your home and will respond to voice commands. In other words, it will listen to everything you say – using those advanced language processing abilities to figure out what you’re requesting. Google isn’t the only company working on this – Amazon, Facebook and others are all working on similar technology.

“Whether the company realises it or not, it is building the tools for perfect surveillance.”

It would be easy to dismiss this as just another bit of awesome tech, another step towards an IoT–powered future. After all, Google likes to present itself as one that is friendly and fun. It is branded with bright colours, it’s twee adverts feature adorable families and ukulele soundtracks. But one you realise what its technologies are capable of, it takes on a more sinister appearance. Whether the company realises it or not, it is building the tools for perfect surveillance. Thanks to Google and the rest of the modern tech industry, the Internet of Things could easily become the Internet of Tyranny.

You don’t have to think too hard to imagine how this same technology could be used for surveillance, especially when considering the technologies that we know governments are already employing in the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations.

If there’s a microphone in every home, listening to everything we do, and some intelligent algorithms at work picking up on keywords and phrases, it would be easily for an aspiring totalitarian government to use such technologies to prevent legitimate political opposition, and not just crime. If a sufficiently malevolent government wanted to employ such surveillance it would make the East German secret police look like amateurs.

Does this sound paranoid? Perhaps – but looking back at history, and looking at current trends in politics, and there are very real reasons to feel a little nervous.

The End of History

In 1989, Francis Fukuyama wrote a provocative essay titled The End of History?, in which he argued that following the end of the Cold War and the defeat of Communism, it was clear that democracy and capitalism are the best way to manage human affairs.

But almost three decades on and this thesis has faced significant challenges. Everything from the rise of Islamism, to the undemocratic rise of China and Russian President Vladimir Putin getting a bit more trigger-happy all suggest that democracy was not the end of history – just part of its continuation.

It is perhaps possible to think about our modern democracy as something of a historical accident. It is a result of the confluence of the right political, economic and technological trends. For our democracy to exist, we need what political scientists call “inclusive” political and economic institutions – ones that distribute power amongst everyone in society, so that everyone has a say and everyone has a chance to make it big.

“Technology does that thing which Silicon Valley types are always banging on about: Disruption.”

This inclusivity is driven by technology. Why? Because technology does that thing which Silicon Valley types are always banging on about: Disruption. Without technological change shaking up the way society is structured, there would forever be an entrenched elite at the top with all of the power. If the printing press had never been invented, literacy rates would have remained much lower thus making us easier to control. Without the industrial revolution, there would never have been organised groups of ordinary working people to demand the vote for non-land owners and women. Without mass media, it wouldn’t be possible for individuals to make informed choices in elections. These are all essential ingredients in a democracy.

But this doesn’t mean those technological innovations only had good outcomes. The printing press enabled the transmission of the ideas that caused the Thirty Years War – one of the most devastating wars in history that killed 8 million people. The industrial revolution brought with it the exploitation of workers in factories. And mass media? Well, that brought us the Kardashians.

We’re currently living through the greatest period of technological change in human history. Seemingly every day we see advances in connectivity, storage and processing power. It would be foolish to think that as our technology changes, our politics will remain the same.

Are we feeling lucky?

So could democracy and freedom be on the way out? Scarily, we don’t even have to really imagine such a dystopian near future – there are already signs that it is starting to happen. Recently in Russia, for example, there has been a huge controversy over an app called FindFace which lets you take a photo of anyone, and will then use facial recognition technology to look the person up on VKontakte, the Russian equivalent of Facebook.

According to The Guardian the company behind it is already talking to the Moscow City Government about hooking up the face-recognition technology to the city’s 150,000 CCTV cameras. Even if you’re naive enough to trust the British (or any western) government with such powers – would you really trust Vladimir Putin to exercise such restraint over his political opponents?

It is inevitable that sooner or later a less pleasant regime will use these technologies to track all of its citizens all of the time.

The past isn’t such a foreign country

And this brings me back to British democracy. The optimistic response to this scaremongering is that unlike in Russia, or China, or in Britain of the past, our modern political institutions are strong. Britain and the Britons within have a strong sense of rule of law, and understand the need to protect the freedoms and liberties that were slowly won throughout history. Surely there is no risk of us sliding into dictatorship?

Unfortunately, it is hard to be optimistic. The growth of the surveillance powers, and our willingness to further exchange our privacy for the conveniences of the digital world is a gradual process.

“The growth of surveillance powers, and our willingness to exchange our privacy for the conveniences of the digital world is a gradual process.”

We can already see this happening: the Investigatory Powers Bill is currently making its way through Parliament. The intention is that it will provide the government with legal legitimacy to surveil on the scale Edward Snowden exposed – albeit with what are likely to be tokenistic checks and balances. While there are some committed groups campaigning against it (like the Don’t Spy On Us coalition), political opposition appears to be limited. Frustratingly the Labour Party – the supposed opposition – abstained on the first reading.

The next step – and one we’ve already heard government make noises about – is legislating to enable websites and services to be blocked. After the 2011 riots there were calls to give the Home Secretary the power to block messaging apps during times of crisis. Sure – you might trust current minister Theresa May… but how can you know that you will trust her successor, or her successor’s successors in 10 or 20 years time?

Even seemingly benign ideas could have unfortunate outcomes. Take the understandable proposals to require police to wear body cameras, for example. It definitely seems like a good way to ensure accountability and prevent violence (particularly against disproportionately persecuted minorities) in a free and democratic society. But if we had a more authoritarian government, those same technologies that we’re enabling today would take on a very different meaning.

What’s dangerous about these current political maneuvers isn’t what it says now per se, but the fact that it means that the technology will be in place so that a future government will have the technical, if not explicitly legal, capacity to exploit it in the future. It’s like the gamble a country makes with nuclear weapons: They might be fine if someone trustworthy is in charge, but in the hands of someone more unhinged, they could be hugely dangerous.

Polarising Algorithms

There is another argument to consider: just because the technology exists for perfect surveillance doesn’t mean the government would actually use it.

And this is when we slide back to politics. The disruption caused by the technological advances of the 21st century – the internet, and globalisation more generally are already changing politics.

What is increasingly clear in the second decade of the 21st century is that political temperaments are changing globally. For a brief time at the turn of the millennium it felt like ideology was no longer important – and the job of politicians, whether Labour, Tory or anything else, was about management. Not doing anything radical, but tweaking the levers of power to keep everything chugging along.

But this is no longer the case – the consensus is dead. All over the world radical movements are gaining power or significantly shaping political events. The far–right is doing disturbingly well in France and Austria. The far–left is now hugely powerful in Greece and Spain. In Britain, Jeremy Corbyn and Nigel Farage are now major figures, despite sitting well away from the political centre.

“When we log on to Facebook in the morning we see a diet of politics algorithmically programmed to tell us what we want to hear.”

This too is partially the result of technological change. When we log on to Facebook in the morning we see a diet of politics algorithmically programmed to tell us what we want to hear. Rather than have our worldviews challenged, we have them reinforced by our like–minded friends. We’ve become more polarised, and more extreme. (Other movements too, like Islamism, Gamergate and the authoritarian wing of the social justice movement are a further expression of this trend.)

This polarisation of views means that with ‘enemies’ so demonised, politics isn’t about pluralism – the idea that we should create institutions that facilitate a politics of multiple viewpoints – but about total victory over opponents. This is the sort of thinking which means that shutting down your political opponents at whatever cost is what’s most important. Imagine if a radical group with these rigid views took power and found they had control of technological apparatus capable of spying on their opponents – they would probably be less reticent to use it. If this vision doesn’t scare you, imagine the group in charge is one that you oppose.

I’d love to say there is hope – that surely a robust, electable movement will emerge that will promise to protect our digital rights and our civil liberties. But given the Labour Party’s cowardice on the issue, and the Liberal Democrats’ irrelevance, it is hard to see where it might come from. Perhaps we’ll only start to worry when it is too late?

Let’s put this all together. We’re living in a moment where new technologies that can enable an authoritarian future are being developed and enthusiastically embraced by consumers, while simultaneously granting the state ever more legal power to develop the capacity to surveil us and restrict what we can do. Given this, what is the prognosis for democracy? If a new radical movement or demagogue were to emerge from this volatility – which isn’t impossible given the current political climate – what tools would citizens have to challenge  authoritarian leaders?

Perhaps the point here can be summed up with a question that Americans might find rather pertinent: Would you trust the state to surveill you, and access all of your data, live and in real time? What if the person in charge was someone like Donald Trump?

We might not be at the end of history, but this could soon be the end of democracy.

Read next: Is movie piracy actually playing a vital role for the US’ overseas relations? Maybe Hollywood shouldn’t be so worried after all. 

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