Conventional wisdom has long been that the internet (and IT and modern telecommunications) are hard for governments to control and empower anyone willing to use them — activists and protesters in particular. I have long been sceptical, but I think its now clear I was right.
Its clear censorship is easier, spying on dissidents is easier, tracking people’s political opinions is easier, squashing protests and punishing ring-leaders is easier.
In an earlier post I described how easy it is to censor the internet in the UK.
We have recently had the dramatic example of Wikileaks and many other domains being seized by the US government [correction: it appears Wikileaks was not seized buts its DNS was shut down]. The domain name system is highly centralised, and therefore highly susceptible to control from the centre. The domain name system is also vital for any non-geek to be able to find stuff. If you shut down the domain, the sites and services may be technical still available, but hardly anyone will find them. Incidentally, this is not about paranoid Americans, the British police are likely to get even more sweeping powers.
Big sites are expensive to run, and require complex services, and governments can cripple them by leaning on service providers to stop supplying them. In the case of Wikileaks Amazon have withdrawn hosting and Mastercard and Paypal have withdrawn payment services.
So what about cheap to run small sites? That is even easier, add them to the filter and they will have too small a user base to protest effectively. The censorship of a Wikipedia page in the UK became controversial and the government backed down, but small sites do not have the same clout. The Australian government has added a pro-life website to its black list, we do not even know what is banned in most countries because the lists of banned sites are a secret.
Incidentally, the Australian government blacklist does not currently force internet providers to filter the content if it is hosted overseas, but it does prevent them from hosting the content, or even linking to it , in Australia.
The other powerful tool is surveillance. By tracking on-line behaviour, phone calls, locations, and SMS messages governments can know a lot.
Political discussion has moved out of pubs and private venues onto blogs and Facebook. Reading has moved from bookshops and libraries to websites. I am not sure what any government makes of the fact that I have downloaded both Das Kapital and The Wealth of Nations, but agreeing too much with either is pretty subversive (obviously Adam Smith less so because some acknowledgement is given to the value of his ideas, although what he actually said has been largely forgotten). I choose to blog my opinions publicly, but even if I did not, tracking my Facebook links and likes, and what websites I read would tell them what my interests and opinions are.
The real problem is not that they can spy on me if an intelligence service took an interest in me — that has always been the case. What is now different is that this can all be automated, especially if it is stored in a single database (as the last British government proposed to do). It would then be fairly easy to analyse the data to, for example, produce lists of people who are reading more left-wing material then they did a year ago. A huge amount of money has been invested in developing this sort of technology, all governments need to do is buy it an use it.
Much has been made of protests (for example in Iran) organised by SMS, but think what a trail that can leave for the authorities. A single terabyte hard drive (a size that is now appearing in consumer PCs) could store four million (or more) SMSs in a nice searchable database. The cost is low enough that telecoms companies could absorb it without noticing. You can then analyse the data at your leisure to see who was where, whose messages triggered others, who seemed to play a coordinating role, etc. The Stasi had nothing this good.
Did I say “who was where”? Yes. Imagine this: the government of a democratic country proposed legalisation requiring that every one carried a tracking device at all times. The result would undoubtedly be an outcry. Now imagine that people start voluntarily carrying tracking devices. Almost everyone keeps one on their person almost all the time, so governments start treating not carrying one as suspicious behaviour.
You can probably guess I am talking about mobile phones. There have already been incidents in France and Germany in which people have been arrested because they did not own a mobile phone, and therefore were obvious suspects to investigating police (I would be very grateful if someone can point out links to the original stories).
Once it is suspicious not to carry your very own tracking device, it is, for all practical purposes, compulsory.
Then there is technology such as car number plate readers, face recognition on CCTV cameras etc. It is now technically feasible to track people to a Big Brother level of detail without the expense or intrusiveness of traditional police state apparatus.
There are is also huge potential to dig out information that people have not disclosed publicly. Not only did MIT students use Facebook Friends lists to accurately spot closet gays, but similar techniques can reveal political views.
That is just from Facebook data. Using multiple sources will give you more data. What about spotting which opposition MPs are closet gays? That might let you persuade them to be more cooperative. How about checking which bidder has more staff who might vote for you and favouring their bid? Filtering people who are likely to become active on a particular issue (an unpopular development?) to neutralise the opposition at the start?
They know what you read, they know what you buy, they know where you go. Knowledge is power.