Home > Uncategorized > Perfecting the automated surveillance of the world’s population.

Perfecting the automated surveillance of the world’s population.

from Norbert Häring

The President of the EU-Commission plans to give all EU citizens a European digital identity which can “be used anywhere in Europe to do anything from paying taxes to renting a bike”. She wants to implement for Europe what ID2020, the World Economic Forum, the World Bank and Homeland Security are pushing worldwide – to perfect the automated surveillance of the world’s ppopulation.

In Ursula von der Leyen’s speech on the State of the Union on September 16, an important announcement was lost due to the attention given to a tightened climate target. The President of the Commission said:

We want a set of rules that puts people at the centre. Algorithms must not be a black box and there must be clear rules if something goes wrong. The Commission will propose a law to this effect next year. This includes control over our personal data which still have far too rarely today. Every time an App or website asks us to create a new digital identity or to easily log on via a big platform, we have no idea what happens to our data in reality. That is why the Commission will soon propose a secure European e-identity. One that we trust and that any citizen can use anywhere in Europe to do anything from paying your taxes to renting a bicycle. A technology where we can control ourselves what data and how data is used.

You have to read between the lines to decipher the perfidious plan. “Data ownership”, expressed here as “a technology where we can control ourselves what data and how data is used”, is a trick to undermine European data protection by pretending it is voluntary. This has been copied from the cookie and T&C consents of digital providers. No one reads them, and if someone does read them, they have no choice but to agree or not to use the service. If the market leaders in a segment demand generous data transfer, you have no chance but to agree. The loss of a scattered, individual customer who files an objection is always bearable.

All the more so, of course, if you want something from public administration.

The concept behind it was devised by US Homeland Security together with Accenture and the World Economic Forum under the name “The Known Traveller Digital Identity Program”. I have written about it several times. It was about entry controls at airports, a field where it is particularly obvious how temporary is the voluntary nature of the decision to release private data. From the beginning the plan was to extend it to many other areas of application.

The concept of uniform digital identities for all citizens of all states, is being driven by an initiative called ID2020.

Multinational IT corporations, the American and other secret services and police authorities are so interested in a unified digital identity because of the indirect creation of central national or even supranational databases in which all actions of all inhabitants are registered and stored. And everybody whose data is in these databases can be identified easily and without confusion. When the data is merged into dossiers on citizens, there is no longer any confusion.

It is true that the major intelligence services, platforms and data aggregators already have vast amounts of data on almost everyone available. However, due to the many different formats in which the data is available and the sometimes inaccurate identification, this data can only be analyzed automatically to a limited extent. This is why the uniform digital identity would be a huge step forward in surveillance.

Another element of this surveillance strategy, driven by the same groups and institutions, is biometric identification. One must identify oneself with fingerprint, iris scan or face recognition when using a device or platform. In this way, the surveillance community largely eliminates the possibility that devices assigned to a particular person are – unbeknownst to them – used by several and the wrong people.

With its plan for a unfied digital identity, the EU Commission is following in the footsteps of the autocratic government of India, which, with a great deal of U.S. support, has created such a single biometric identity for all 1.5 billion Indians called Aadhaar. The system has turned out to be a data protection horror.

Parallel to the uniform digital identity, the EU Commission is continuing to pursue its roadmap to a uniform digital vaccination card. Even if no compulsory vaccination is introduced, as we are promised, it is foreseeable that everyone who wants to go to the theater or across a border, or perhaps even go to a pub or their workplace, will have to be vaccinated.

  1. Ikonoclast
    September 30, 2020 at 12:46 am

    This could be called part of the “democratic paradox”. I do NOT mean “democratic paradox” in the sense that Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe employs the term. In my view, Mouffe fundamentally misunderstands and mis-states the paradoxes of modern democracy. I perforce have to quote Mouffe to dismiss her position before stating my own. I do this since I want to re-purpose the term “democratic paradox”.

    “We are dealing with a new political form of society whose specificity comes from the articulation between two different traditions. On one side we have the liberal tradition constituted by the rule of law, the defence of human rights and the respect of individual liberty; on the other the democratic tradition whose main ideas are those of equality, identity between governing and governed and popular sovereignty. There is no necessary relation between those two distinct traditions but only a contingent historical articulation….Let’s not forget that, while we tend today to take the link between liberalism and democracy for granted, their union, far from being a smooth process, was the result of bitter struggles.”
    — Mouffe, The Democratic Paradox, pp. 2-3

    This view is wrong. The defense of human rights and individuality, as Mouffe outlines them, along with the democratic tradition as Mouffe outlines it, are NOT distinct traditions. They are a twinned traditions, existing as two sides of the one coin or dynamically considered spiralling about each other like a linked twin-helix. There is a necessary historical relation, a dialectical and holistic relation, between the two strands or two traditions as they play out in various polities (those that are least approximately “democratic”). However, my point here is not to ague against Mouffe on this issue but rather to point out the true “democratic paradox” or dilemma.

    The true dilemma begins with the opposition between autonomy and collective action. Pure autonomy equates to pure anarchy. There can be no social or political economy organization at all under pure autonomy. Pure collective action is something we might observe in an ant-hill IF there was an ant species which was caste-less. These pure states, or extremes, cannot exist among higher, co-operating animals. The pure states are not functional or possible and we may deduce this from the wide empirical evidence available about social and euscoial animal species.

    Human authoritarianism seeks to reduce the tension of this dilemma by increasing pressure on the lower (but not elite) castes to curtail their autonomy and behave in a more collective fashion. Democracies (of various forms) seek to solve the dilemma by “granting” as it were the theoretical and operational reality that one of the decisions of individual autonomy may be to act collectively on occasion or in specific situations. The issue then is how free or determined is the nominally autonomous decision for collective action in some cases and circumstances. The answer to that question, if there is one, will be immensely complex and ramifying. The issues play out in praxis. Democracy is not a static state but a dynamic process.

    Part and parcel of the “democratic paradox” in this view is the potential for technological determinism. Technological advances throw up new possibilities and new challenges for extant democracies, which are all imperfect democracies anyway from a purist viewpoint. I would pose the question like this. “How do we surveill (and limit) the surveillance? Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who watches the watchers? Literally, “Who will guard the guards themselves?

    The question will come down to who really chooses and runs the (hopefully) democratic government. If it is truly the people, then there is some chance of limiting the technological surveillance state. If it is the autocrats, plutocrats and kleptocrats as in the USA, China and Russia currently, then there is little to no chance. You can’t stop the surveillance state if you don’t stop the autocratic, plutocratic, kleptocratic state. The other real opposition or dilemma in the modern nation state is capitalism versus democracy. These are not natural twins at all. These are in necessary and unavoidable total opposition. Capitalism is anti-democratic. True democracy would be socialistic. China and Russia, by the way, are party-state and crony capitalist nations whereas the USA is an oligarchic capitalist nation. It is hard to find precisely the right short-hand terms as Russia and China do have oligarchs too but capital-owning oligarchs rank power-wise below the top party ranks.

    The surveillance state is/will be a symptom or outcome of the capitalist-oligarchic state. Fighting the surveillance state aspect alone is to fight the symptom not the disease. In that case technological determinism will doom us. We must deal with causes. The cause is capitalism. The cure is democratic socialism which will always be a dynamic process and an ongoing struggle to achieve substantively and maintain substantively in some form. There are no easy answers, I am afraid. Life, including social and political life, is a perpetual dialectical struggle.

  2. gerald holtham
    October 1, 2020 at 5:03 pm

    Mouffe can’t be wrong if you can point to illiberal democracies and liberal autocracies. That would be sufficient to establish that the two notions are not only conceptually distinguishable but can have separate instances in practice. Current states in eastern Europe are illiberal democracies by their own classification. The government of Hungary has elections and enjoys strong majority support while recruiting from any section of society but it suppresses free speech and shackles the judiciary. The United Kingdom through much of the 18th and 19th century and into the 20th was never a democracy, with a restrictive franchise and a fairly rigid class system but there were periods of freedom of speech (note Gillivrays cartoons of government and royal figures), habeas corpus and a fairly independent judiciary, albeit one that shared the prejudices of the ruling classes. Neither system was or is perfectly democratic or perfectly liberal but actually both notions dissolve if you push them to perfection. Rule by the people in the sense of Athenian participatory democracy is simply impossible in a state of millions of people. The Swiss come closest to it with a system of petitions and frequent referenda. Mind you women didn’t vote there until well after WWII and it is not particularly egalitarian.. And the most liberal states have had to impose limits on freedoms of speech e.g the UK’s race relations act. The best systems are a messy compromise.

  3. gerald holtham
    October 1, 2020 at 5:17 pm

    Democratic socialism is a nice idea. The difficulty is maintaining pluralism. That has defeated every socialist state up to now from the Soviet Union to Cuba and Venezuela at present. When there is only one ladder to power and wealth the fight to get up it invariably turns vicious. And people at the top of the ladder never like to see alternative ladders, i.e. power bases, grow. As JK Galbraith noted a healthy social-democratic capitalism depends on the notion of countervailing power. You rightly point to how easily capitalism can become monopolistic and money can control the political system (as in the United States) but you ignore how socialism launched with the best of intentions has always ended up as an illiberal party dictatorship. Your case would be stronger if there was even one exception to the rule. Private property and private enterprise have to be regulated by democratic control but their existence seems to be necessary for any civic freedom.

  4. Ken Zimmerman
    October 31, 2020 at 4:17 pm

    It is in my view important to place this discussion into a wider context. I have chosen the context of the 911 emergency calling scheme in the US. In 1967, the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice recommended the creation of 911 for reporting emergency situations, and Public Safety Answering Points (PSAP) were established throughout the country to receive emergency calls. PSAPs are the centers that connect to callers when they dial 911 and from which operators dispatch public safety officials. At its onset, 911 simply connected a caller with an operator; however, the operator did not immediately receive information about the caller, such as their number or their location. Since the implementation of 911, PSAP systems throughout the country have seen a series of upgrades. For example, with the advance of wireless phones, 911 systems were upgraded to accommodate wireless calls, share a caller’s location and the ability for 911 operators to identify the location of the closest cell tower to the caller (known as ‘Enhanced 911’). Currently, PSAPs throughout the country are in different stages of transitioning to Next Generation 911 (NG911). NG911 allows for the exchange of digital information, such as texts and pictures, between the public and PSAPs. Each of these enhancements required significant changes to existing systems since they did not have the capabilities to support new technologies.

    From its beginning 911 calling received opposition both different from and in many instances like that discussed in this posting. And the rise of domination of neoliberal economics and the threat of right-wing extremism (armed and otherwise), including white suprematism and intensified systematic racism has added fuel to this opposition. For example, cities and states are now grappling with ‘hate’ 911 calls. Calls made solely to harm or even kill members of specific racial, ethnic, or socio-economic groups. We are also seeing a push in some places to keep the contents of 911 calls secret beyond the normal privacy laws. Mostly justified based on protecting personal medical information under HIPA. There are also efforts to charge a fee to each person making the 911 call and to remove public funding for 911 systems that do not ‘protect’ taxpayers from ‘free riders’ who either do not or will not pay to ensure its availability. Access of 911 PSAPs to personal data (name, address, phone number, etc.) from phone service providers (both landlines and cellular phones) has become a part of these disputes. Without this access 911 PSAPs have no way to identify the location of callers and send emergency services providers to them.

    My point is this. Funding and technology are always of concern for ‘public services.’ So it is with 911 systems. In an average year, around 240 million 911 calls are made in the US. That averages out to over 600,000 calls per day. However, many of these are not genuine emergencies. But even removing these the system is still often stretched thin. Over its history the 911 system has helped save hundreds of thousands of lives and reduce problems such as property damage, traffic congestion, pollution, and the costs of city, county, and state government. But even with these important contributions to American society the issues listed above, and others continue to challenge those who create, operate, and improve these systems. I believe the effort to set up digital identities has a lot in common with 911 systems in terms of improving peoples’ lives. From locating people in emergencies and assessing their physical condition to enhancing 911 systems to helping first responders in mass casualty events (the number of which increases each year) digital identity marking is a societal plus. Recognizing that issues of information privacy, funding, and 24-7 access will always face us with such identity systems. At the same time, the concerns about sociopaths, psychopaths, and would-be autocrats misusing these should not be ignored. But these should not be allowed to force us to forego the many benefits these systems can provide.

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