Posts Tagged ‘technology’

“There will come a time when it isn’t ‘They’re spying on me through my phone’ anymore. Eventually, it will be ‘My phone is spying on me.’” ― Philip K. Dick

If ever Americans sell their birthright, it will be for the promise of expediency and comfort delivered by way of blazingly fast Internet, cell phone signals that never drop a call, thermostats that keep us at the perfect temperature without our having to raise a finger, and entertainment that can be simultaneously streamed to our TVs, tablets and cell phones.

Likewise, if ever we find ourselves in bondage, we will have only ourselves to blame for having forged the chains through our own lassitude, laziness and abject reliance on internet-connected gadgets and gizmos that render us wholly irrelevant.

Indeed, while most of us are consumed with our selfies and trying to keep up with what our so-called friends are posting on Facebook, the megacorporation Google has been busily partnering with the National Security Agency (NSA), the Pentagon, and other governmental agencies to develop a new “human” species, so to speak.

In other words, Google—a neural network that approximates a global brain—is fusing with the human mind in a phenomenon that is called “singularity,” and they’ve hired transhumanist scientist Ray Kurzweil to do just that. Google will know the answer to your question before you have asked it, Kurzweil said. “It will have read every email you will ever have written, every document, every idle thought you’ve ever tapped into a search-engine box. It will know you better than your intimate partner does. Better, perhaps, than even yourself.”

But here’s the catch: the NSA and all other government agencies will also know you better than yourself. As William Binney, one of the highest-level whistleblowers to ever emerge from the NSA said, “The ultimate goal of the NSA is total population control.”

Science fiction, thus, has become fact.

We’re fast approaching Philip K. Dick’s vision of the future as depicted in the film Minority Report. There, police agencies apprehend criminals before they can commit a crime, driverless cars populate the highways, and a person’s biometrics are constantly scanned and used to track their movements, target them for advertising, and keep them under perpetual surveillance.

Cue the dawning of the Age of the Internet of Things, in which internet-connected “things” will monitor your home, your health and your habits in order to keep your pantry stocked, your utilities regulated and your life under control and relatively worry-free.

The key word here, however, is control.

In the not-too-distant future, “just about every device you have — and even products like chairs, that you don’t normally expect to see technology in — will be connected and talking to each other.”

By 2018, it is estimated there will be 112 million wearable devices such as smartwatches, keeping users connected it real time to their phones, emails, text messages and the Internet. By 2020, there will be 152 million cars connected to the Internet and 100 million Internet-connected bulbs and lamps. By 2022, there will be 1.1 billion smart meters installed in homes, reporting real-time usage to utility companies and other interested parties.

This “connected” industry—estimated to add more than $14 trillion to the economy by 2020—is about to be the next big thing in terms of societal transformations, right up there with the Industrial Revolution, a watershed moment in technology and culture.

Between driverless cars that completely lacking a steering wheel, accelerator, or brake pedal, and smart pills embedded with computer chips, sensors, cameras and robots, we are poised to outpace the imaginations of science fiction writers such as Philip K. Dick and Isaac Asimov. By the way, there is no such thing as a driverless car. Someone or something will be driving, but it won’t be you.

The 2015 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is a glittering showcase for such Internet-connected techno gadgets as smart light bulbs that discourage burglars by making your house look occupied, smart thermostats that regulate the temperature of your home based on your activities, and smart doorbells that let you see who is at your front door without leaving the comfort of your couch.

Nest, Google’s $3 billion acquisition, has been at the forefront of the “connected” industry, with such technologically savvy conveniences as a smart lock that tells your thermostat who is home, what temperatures they like, and when your home is unoccupied; a home phone service system that interacts with your connected devices to “learn when you come and go” and alert you if your kids don’t come home; and a sleep system that will monitor when you fall asleep, when you wake up, and keep the house noises and temperature in a sleep-conducive state.

The aim of these internet-connected devices, as Nest proclaims, is to make “your house a more thoughtful and conscious home.” For example, your car can signal ahead that you’re on your way home, while Hue lights can flash on and off to get your attention if Nest Protect senses something’s wrong. Your coffeemaker, relying on data from fitness and sleep sensors, will brew a stronger pot of coffee for you if you’ve had a restless night.

It’s not just our homes that are being reordered and reimagined in this connected age: it’s our workplaces, our health systems, our government and our very bodies that are being plugged into a matrix over which we have no real control.

Moreover, given the speed and trajectory at which these technologies are developing, it won’t be long before these devices are operating entirely independent of their human creators, which poses a whole new set of worries. As technology expert Nicholas Carr notes, “As soon as you allow robots, or software programs, to act freely in the world, they’re going to run up against ethically fraught situations and face hard choices that can’t be resolved through statistical models. That will be true of self-driving cars, self-flying drones, and battlefield robots, just as it’s already true, on a lesser scale, with automated vacuum cleaners and lawnmowers.”

For instance, just as the robotic vacuum, Roomba, “makes no distinction between a dust bunny and an insect,” weaponized drones—poised to take to the skies en masse this year—will be incapable of distinguishing between a fleeing criminal and someone merely jogging down a street. For that matter, how do you defend yourself against a robotic cop—such as the Atlas android being developed by the Pentagon—that has been programmed to respond to any perceived threat with violence?

Unfortunately, in our race to the future, we have failed to consider what such dependence on technology might mean for our humanity, not to mention our freedoms.

Ingestible or implantable chips are a good example of how unprepared we are, morally and otherwise, to navigate this uncharted terrain. Hailed as revolutionary for their ability to access, analyze and manipulate your body from the inside, these smart pills can remind you to take your medication, search for cancer, and even send an alert to your doctor warning of an impending heart attack.

Sure, the technology could save lives, but is that all we need to know? Have we done our due diligence in asking all the questions that need to be asked before unleashing such awesome technology on an unsuspecting populace?

For example, asks Washington Post reporter Ariana Eunjung Cha:

What kind of warnings should users receive about the risks of implanting chip technology inside a body, for instance? How will patients be assured that the technology won’t be used to compel them to take medications they don’t really want to take? Could law enforcement obtain data that would reveal which individuals abuse drugs or sell them on the black market? Could what started as a voluntary experiment be turned into a compulsory government identification program that could erode civil liberties?

Let me put it another way. If you were shocked by Edward Snowden’s revelations about how NSA agents have used surveillance to spy on Americans’ phone calls, emails and text messages, can you imagine what unscrupulous government agents could do with access to your internet-connected car, home and medications? Imagine what a SWAT team could do with the ability to access, monitor and control your internet-connected home—locking you in, turning off the lights, activating alarms, etc.

Thus far, the public response to concerns about government surveillance has amounted to a collective shrug. After all, who cares if the government can track your whereabouts on your GPS-enabled device so long as it helps you find the fastest route from Point A to Point B? Who cares if the NSA is listening in on your phone calls and downloading your emails so long as you can get your phone calls and emails on the go and get lightning fast Internet on the fly? Who cares if the government can monitor your activities in your home by tapping into your internet-connected devices—thermostat, water, lights—so long as you can control those things with the flick of a finger, whether you’re across the house or across the country?

As for those still reeling from a year of police shootings of unarmed citizens, SWAT team raids, and community uprisings, the menace of government surveillance can’t begin to compare to bullet-riddled bodies, devastated survivors and traumatized children. However, both approaches are just as lethal to our freedoms if left unchecked.

A Government of Wolves book coverControl is the key here. As I make clear in my book A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, total control over every aspect of our lives, right down to our inner thoughts, is the objective of any totalitarian regime.

George Orwell understood this. His masterpiece, 1984, portrays a global society of total control in which people are not allowed to have thoughts that in any way disagree with the corporate state. There is no personal freedom, and advanced technology has become the driving force behind a surveillance-driven society. Snitches and cameras are everywhere. And people are subject to the Thought Police, who deal with anyone guilty of thought crimes. The government, or “Party,” is headed by Big Brother, who appears on posters everywhere with the words: “Big Brother is watching you.”

Make no mistake: the Internet of Things is just Big Brother in a more appealing disguise.

Even so, I’m not suggesting we all become Luddites. However, we need to be aware of how quickly a helpful device that makes our lives easier can become a harmful weapon that enslaves us.

This was the underlying lesson of The Matrix, the Wachowski brothers’ futuristic thriller about human beings enslaved by autonomous technological beings that call the shots. As Morpheus, one of the characters in The Matrix, explains:

The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work… when you go to church… when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.

“What truth?” asks Neo.

Morpheus leans in closer to Neo: “That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else you were born into bondage. Born into a prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch. A prison for your mind.”

google-surveillance

“The Google services and apps that we interact with on a daily basis aren’t the company’s main product: They are the harvesting machines that dig up and process the stuff that Google really sells: for-profit intelligence.”—Journalist Yasha Levine

“We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.”—former Google CEO Eric Schmidt

What would happen if the most powerful technology company in the world and the largest clandestine spying agency in the world joined forces?

No need to wonder. Just look around you. It’s happened already. Thanks to an insidious partnership between Google and the National Security Agency (NSA) that grows more invasive and more subtle with every passing day, “we the people” have become little more than data consumer commodities to be bought, sold and paid for over and over again.

With every smartphone we buy, every GPS device we install, every Twitter, Facebook, and Google account we open, every frequent buyer card we use for purchases—whether at the grocer’s, the yogurt shop, the airlines or the department store, and every credit and debit card we use to pay for our transactions, we’re helping Corporate America build a dossier for its government counterparts on who we know, what we think, how we spend our money, and how we spend our time.

What’s worse, this for-profit surveillance scheme, far larger than anything the NSA could capture just by tapping into our phone calls, is made possible by our consumer dollars and our cooperation. All those disclaimers you scroll though without reading them, the ones written in minute font, only to quickly click on the “Agree” button at the end so you can get to the next step—downloading software, opening up a social media account, adding a new app to your phone or computer: those signify your written consent to having your activities monitored, recorded and shared.

It’s not just the surveillance you consent to that’s being shared with the government, however. It’s the very technology you happily and unquestioningly use which is being hardwired to give the government easy access to your activities.

In this way, Congress can pass all the legislation it wants—it will have no real effect on the NSA’s activities—because the NSA no longer needs to dirty its hands by spying on Americans’ phone, email and internet activities, and the government can absolve itself of any direct wrongdoing. They can go straight to the source, as evidenced by a Freedom of Information Act request detailing the close relationship between Google higher-ups Eric Schmidt and Sergey Brin and NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander. With Google in its hip pocket, the NSA can just bypass any legislative restrictions dreamed up to appease the electorate and buy their way into a surveillance state.

The government’s motives aren’t too difficult to understand—money, power, control—but what do corporate giants like Google stand to gain from colluding with Big Brother? Money, power, control. As privacy and security expert Bruce Schneier observed, “The main focus of massive Internet companies and government agencies both still largely align: to keep us all under constant surveillance. When they bicker, it’s mostly role-playing designed to keep us blasé about what’s really going on.”

While one billion people use Google every day, none of them pay to utilize Google’s services. However, there’s a good reason that Google doesn’t charge for its services, and it has nothing to do with magnanimity, generosity, altruism, or munificence. If as the old adage warns, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, then what does Google get out of the relationship? Simple: Google gets us.

It turns out that we are Soylent Green. The 1973 film of the same name, starring Charlton Heston and Edward G. Robinson, is set in 2022 in an overpopulated, polluted, starving New York City whose inhabitants depend on synthetic foods manufactured by the Soylent Corporation for survival. Heston plays a policeman investigating a murder, who then discovers the grisly truth about what the wafer, soylent green—the principal source of nourishment for a starved population—is really made of. “It’s people. Soylent Green is made out of people,” declares Heston’s character. “They’re making our food out of people. Next thing they’ll be breeding us like cattle for food.”

Oh, how right he was. Soylent Green is indeed people, or in our case, Soylent Green is our own personal data, repossessed, repackaged and used by corporations and the government to entrap us. In this way, we’re being bred like cattle but not for food—rather, we’re being bred for our data. That’s the secret to Corporate America’s success.

Google, for example, has long enjoyed a relationship with clandestine agencies such as the CIA and NSA, which use Google’s search-technology for scanning and sharing various intelligence. The technology leviathan turns a profit by processing, trading, and marketing products based upon our personal information, including our relationships, daily activities, personal beliefs, and personalities. Thus, behind the pleasant glow of the computer screen lies a leviathan menace, an intricate system of data collection which transforms all Americans into a string of data, to be added, manipulated, or deleted based upon the whims of those in control.

Take, for example, Google’s Street View program, which gives a fully immersive street level view of towns across the world. The program was constructed by Google Street View cars outfitted with 360 degree cameras, which seemed a neat idea to many people, most of whom didn’t realize that the cars were not only taking pictures of all residential and commercial districts which they drove through, but were also “siphoning loads of personally identifiable data from people’s Wi-Fi connections all across the world,” including emails, medical records, and any other electronic documents that were not encrypted.

Even the most seemingly benign Google program, Gmail, has been one of the most astoundingly successful surveillance programs ever concocted by a state or corporate entity. Journalist Yasha Levine explains:

“All communication was subject to deep linguistic analysis; conversations were parsed for keywords, meaning, and even tone; individuals were matched to real identities using contact information stored in a user’s Gmail address book; attached documents were scraped for intel — that info was then cross-referenced with previous email interactions and combined with stuff gleaned from other Google services, as well as third-party sources…”

Google then creates profiles on Gmail users, based upon “concepts and topics discussed in email, as well as email attachments [including] the content of websites that users have visited; demographic information — including income, sex, race, marital status; geographic information; psychographic information — personality type, values, attitudes, interests, and lifestyle interests; previous searches users have made; information about documents a user viewed and or edited by the users; browsing activity; previous purchases.”

Even if one isn’t using Gmail themselves, but merely contacting a Gmail user, that person is subject to this mass collection and analysis of personal data. Google has gone so far as to disingenuously argue that “people who used Internet services for communication had ‘no legitimate expectation of privacy’ — and thus anyone who emailed with Gmail users had given ‘implied consent’ for Google to intercept and analyze their email exchange.”

What Google’s vast acquisition and analysis of information indicates is that we are entering what some have called an age of infopolitics, in which the human person is broken down into data sets to be collated and analyzed, and used for a variety of purposes, including marketing, propaganda, and the squelching of dissent. As philosopher Colin Koopman notes, we may soon find ourselves in a more efficient version of the McCarthy era, in which one’s personal beliefs or associations become fodder for the rising corporate surveillance state.

Email, social media, and GPS are just the tip of the iceberg, however. Google has added to its payroll the best and brightest minds in the fields of military defense, robotics (including humanoid robotics), defense, surveillance, machine learning, artificial intelligence, web-controlled household appliances (such as Nest thermostats), and self-driving cars. As journalist Carole Cadwalladr’s predicts, “The future, in ways we can’t even begin to imagine, will be Google’s.”

Toward this end, Google has been working towards what one investor called “a Manhattan project of AI [artificial intelligence].” For those who remember their history, the Manhattan Project was a top-secret, multi-agency, multi-billion-dollar, military-driven government project aimed at building the first atom bombs. This project not only spawned the nuclear bombs used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but it also ushered in a nuclear arms race that, to this day, puts humanity on the brink of annihilation.

No less powerful and potentially destructive to the human race are modern-day surveillance and robotic technologies, manufactured by corporations working in tandem with government agencies. These are the building blocks of the global electronic concentration camp encircling us all, and Google, in conjunction with the NSA, has set itself up as a formidable warden.

The question, when all is said and done, is where will all this technology take us? It’s a conundrum I explore at length in my book A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, which looks to film, fiction and art as indicators of the police state that now surrounds us, brought about with the help of the government and its corporate partners.

It won’t be long before we find ourselves, much like Edward G. Robinson’s character in Soylent Green, looking back on the past with longing, back to an age where we could speak to whom we wanted, buy what we wanted, think what we wanted without those thoughts, words and activities being tracked, processed and stored by corporate giants such as Google, sold to government agencies such as the NSA and CIA, and used against us by militarized police with their army of futuristic technologies.

Then again, George Orwell’s description of the world of 1984 is as apt a description of today’s world as I’ve ever seen: “You had to live—did live, from habit that became instinct—in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.”