Recording everything: digital storage as an enabler of authoritarian governments

May 18, 2012

The Brookings Institution recently published a paper entitled “Recording Everything: Digital Storage as an Enabler of Authoritarian Governments“. The executive summary reads as follows:

Within the next few years an important threshold will be crossed: For the first time ever, it will become technologically and financially feasible for authoritarian governments to record nearly everything that is said or done within their borders—every phone conversation, electronic message, social media interaction, the movements of nearly every person and vehicle, and video from every street corner. Governments with a history of using all of the tools at their disposal to track and monitor their citizens will undoubtedly make full use of this capability once it becomes available.

The Arab Spring of 2011, which saw regimes toppled by protesters organized via Twitter and Facebook, was heralded in much of the world as signifying a new era in which information technology alters the balance of power in favor of the repressed. However, within the world’s many remaining authoritarian regimes it was undoubtedly viewed very differently. For those governments, the Arab Spring likely underscored the perils of failing to exercise sufficient control of digital communications and highlighted the need to redouble their efforts to increase the monitoring of their citizenry.

Technology trends are making such monitoring easier to perform. While the domestic surveillance programs of countries including Syria, Iran, China, Burma, and Libya under Gadhafi have been extensively reported, the evolving role of digital storage in facilitating truly pervasive surveillance is less widely recognized. Plummeting digital storage costs will soon make it possible for authoritarian regimes to not only monitor known dissidents, but to also store the complete set of digital data associated with everyone within their borders. These enormous databases of captured information will create what amounts to a surveillance time machine, enabling state security services to retroactively eavesdrop on people in the months and years before they were designated as surveillance targets. This will fundamentally change the dynamics of dissent, insurgency and revolution.
The coming era of ubiquitous surveillance in authoritarian countries has important consequences for American foreign policy as well, impacting issues as diverse as human rights, trade, nuclear nonproliferation, export control, and intellectual property security. 

An earlier post on this blog regarding consumer surveillance raised concerns about the possibility of capturing the videos obtained by cctv cameras for governmental surveillance.  (Consumer surveillance and More on consumer surveillance). Reading the Brookings article seems to confirm these concerns as the stupendously huge data factory being constructed in Utah is perfectly fit to store and analyze this massive amount of data. 

The paper concludes:

Declining storage costs will soon make it practical for authoritarian governments to create permanent digital archives of the data gathered from pervasive surveillance systems. In countries where there is no meaningful public debate on privacy, there is no reason to expect governments not to fully exploit the ability to build databases containing every phone conversation, location data for almost every person and vehicle, and video from every public space in an entire country. 

This will greatly expand the ability of repressive regimes to perform surveillance of opponents and to anticipate and react to unrest. In addition, the awareness among the populace of pervasive surveillance will reduce the willingness of people to engage in dissent.

The coming era of ubiquitous surveillance in authoritarian countries has important implications for American foreign policy. Strategies for engaging with these countries will benefit from specific consideration of the presence, growth and increasing impact of these enormous digital databases. This will impact human rights, trade, export control, intellectual property security, and the operation of multinational businesses with in-country facilities, subsidiaries, or subcontractors.

Finally, the use by authoritarian governments of systems that record everything in the complete absence of privacy considerations will lead to a long list of other unforeseen and generally negative consequences. Unfortunately, the residents of those countries, as well as the rest of us, will soon start to find out just what those consequences are.

Interestingly enough the U.S. seems to be the biggest and most sophisticated “Authoritarian Government” if judged by the criteria Brookings proposes. 


One Response to Recording everything: digital storage as an enabler of authoritarian governments

  1. wk
    September 26, 2012 at 12:36 pm

    not just the US:

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