Today's technology can be used for good to drive change, build economic opportunities, and improve communication. But that same technology has a down side when it's used by governments to repress their citizens.
I've often wondered what the old East German Stasi surveillance agency would be like with today's tools, had it survived beyond the late 1980s. As it turns out, today we are seeing examples of governments all around the world -- including those of China, Syria, and Iran -- using sophisticated technology, often bought from US, Canadian, or European companies, to keep watch over their citizens.
And it's not just countries we typically think of as totalitarian regimes. It's Western governments, too, from the US to the UK and other areas of the EU.
In fact, The Electronic Frontier Foundation released a whitepaper on Friday, April 20, called “Human Rights and Technology Sales,” which calls technology "repression's little helper" and outlines just how bad it can get.
The paper describes the situation in these terms:
The reach of these technologies is astonishingly broad: governments can listen in on cell phone calls, use voice recognition to scan mobile networks, use facial recognition to scan photographs online and offline, read emails and text messages, track a citizen’s every movement using GPS, and can even change email contents while en route to a recipient...
It goes on, but you get the idea.
Of course, it's not a simple matter, because as the report points out, technology that can be used to bully and repress legitimate political opponents can also be used to track actual criminals and terrorists.
Social networking technology might have been a driver behind the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street movements, giving powerful voices to ordinary citizens using mobile phones. But what technology giveth, it can also take away -- and we're finding those same phones are easy to track and trace. And not just for governments and law enforcement.
Just the other day, the MIT Technology Review reported on a new technology from Navizon called Navizon Indoor Triangulation System that takes advantage of your WiFi connection to track your movements through a mall, airport, or just about any place. Ostensibly, this technology is designed to track users’ viewing habits at a museum or shopping habits at a mall in an anonymous fashion to see what attracts the most attention. As the Technology Review article points out, the Navizon system is just communicating with the phone's WiFi antenna, so theoretically at least, it can't determine who you are. But you have to wonder how long it will be before some enterprising government or law enforcement agency extends this technology to track the person using the phone.
It's not as though cellphone tracking isn't common practice, even in the United States. The New York Times reported last month that cellphone tracking does not arise merely in the realm of federal security agencies. Not by a long shot. In fact, the NYT reports that literally hundreds of departments large and small are tracking cellphones regularly -- usually without much court oversight.
The EFF suggests that companies look more carefully into the governments they sell to and try harder to "know their customers." This would suggest, however, that most of these companies have some kind of corporate conscience, which is probably not the case.
That's why legislation called the Global Online Freedom Act that just passed a US House of Representatives subcommittee could give some legal impetus for these companies to do the right thing. Particularly important is the measure that would, according to the EFF, "Limit the export of technologies that ‘serve the primary purpose of’ facilitating government surveillance or censorship to governments in countries designated as ‘Internet-restricting.’ ”
All of this sounds great, but the problem is that technology can be used for good or ill, depending on the circumstances, and it's not always a simple matter to determine which is which, especially when it's so easy to flip the purpose, depending on who's in charge.
— Ron Miller is a freelance technology journalist, blogger, FierceContentManagement editor, and contributing editor at EContent magazine.