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Super-Tech Makes Democracy Impossible

Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Director of Google Ideas Jared Cohen recently wrote in their book The New Digital Age that "What Lockheed Martin was to the 20th century, technology and cybersecurity companies will be to the 21st." Indeed, the transition is already taking place. Google now spends more money lobbying congress than the military industrial giant they seek to replace. They argue that unlike their violent and destructive predecessors, technology will only help to improve democracy and allow governments to better serve their people.

This is of course an updated spin on the typical propaganda provided by Washington DC: that America is interested in promoting democracy abroad, only now they promise to do so through surveillance technology rather than napalm, white phosphorous, drone strikes, cruise missiles, and of course, the United States Marines.

Cohen is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and before joining Google, he worked in the State Department under Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton. Despite his move to the private sector, Cohen's focus is still on contributing to US foreign policy, namely managing the activities of foreign populations. In an interview with Foreign Policy Magazine, Cohen says that "Google Ideas do something very similar" to his role at the State Department. "[T]he range of challenges that it may focus on include... counter-terrorism, counter-radicalization, and nonproliferation."

Cohen's arguments in support of widespread surveillance technology do consistently warn of the dangers it might present in the hands of autocratic regimes. Cohen and Schmidt admitted in the WSJ last year, "Dictators and autocrats in the years to come will attempt to build all-encompassing surveillance states, and they will have unprecedented technologies with which to do so. But they can never succeed completely." They seem sincere, but hopelessly naive.

Like the nuclear, chemical and biological weapons of the past, the United States' technological arsenal will primarily be developed for its own hegemonic benefit, but unlike their lethal counterparts, tech is mostly invisible, completely silent and like God, omnipresent. Consider just a few of the current and upcoming technological developments.

We already know the government records most if not all phone calls made within the US. This isn't merely limited to the metadata of the call (who, when, where), but also includes the content of the call. Further, your phone can be used as a locater and listening device for government monitoring, even if you aren't making a call and even if the phone is off.

In 2006, ABC News reported:

Cell phone users, beware. The FBI can listen to everything you say, even when the cell phone is turned off. A recent court ruling in a case against the Genovese crime family revealed that the FBI has the ability from a remote location to activate a cell phone and turn its microphone into a listening device that transmits to an FBI listening post, a method known as a 'roving bug.' Experts say the only way to defeat it is to remove the cell phone battery.

While file size limitations make it impractical for the government to record all of your conversations 24 hours a day, it is conceivable this limitation could be eliminated in a few years. Imagine the consequences of constant surveillance. Even if your not under suspicion at that time, recordings of every public conversation you've ever had would make it difficult to survive future character assassination during a hard fought criminal trial. You've never told a dirty joke? You've never lost your temper? You've never said you hated cops? And so on. Not carrying a cell phone wouldn't do you much good either, since your friends, family and acquaintances are likely to carry one. Social networking and voice recognition technology will easily allow the government to eliminate any holes in their knowledge base.

All of this would be supplemented with traditional forms of state surveillance including smart-lamp posts, which can take your picture, display ads and government messages and even communicate commands to passers by. Public transit centers in cities like Baltimore and San Francisco have installed microphones in public buses and trolly cars. Does anyone really believe the Department of Homeland Security is offering to foot the entire $1.2 million bill to "improve the safety of passengers and drivers and resolve complaints?"

"A Lot of Epic Shit"

All of this is in place now or shortly will be, but in the not too distant future, even more oppressive methods of surveillance are possible. RFID tags for example are about the size of a grain of rice are small and inexpensive, but much smaller devices are being researched that would allow a subject to be implanted without his or her knowledge. Currently, the larger chips can recharge themselves simply through body heat, but alternative power sources such as the sugar in our blood or the acids in your stomach can be a potential source of energy for any cybernetic implant or prosthetic.

Google owned Motorolla has created a working prototype of a pill which would once swallowed, allow the user to access restricted devices such as their phone or car. Regina Dugan, a former DARPA chief now heading research at Motorola said, "It means that my arms are like wires, my hands are like alligator clips — when I touch my phone, my computer, my door, my car, I'm authenticated in. It’s my first super power. I want that." It's clear that "the pill" is intended to be the first step toward an increasingly technologically augmented trans-human. "It’s crazy, mad-scientist stuff," Dugan said. "Blurring the line between man and machine, but it's happening."

Motorolla is also working on a type of electronic tattoo that would allow the company's software to read users thoughts. According to the patent, "The system comprises an electronic skin tattoo capable of being applied to a throat region of a body." Since unvocalized thoughts are still mimicked by a persons voice box, the tattoo can, in a sense, read those thoughts. You could send thought-commands to your phone, car, house, refrigerator or any other Wi-Fi connected device. Using a phone as a medium, you could send text text messages to other people while pretending to be intently listening to someone else.

Quoting Dugan again, "It’s my first super power. I want that." Indeed, that is how this technology will be sold, a way to make you super-human, and many will be ready to buy into it. Even those hesitant to install this new technology in themselves may find they cannot resist forever, as they are increasingly locked out of jobs and eventually, government programs. But the greater threat rests on who controls the central system and all the information that will flow through it? The ultimate tyrannical super-government? It would seem so.

While Dugan was the director of DARPA, she oversaw the ongoing development of battery powered exoskeletons, underwater drones, and the now infamous PRISM program, which collected information from internet companies like Google and Apple on various kinds of internet communications. Dugan said, "We got to do a lot of epic shit when I was at DARPA."

PRISM is "the number one source of raw intelligence used for NSA analytic reports" according to a PowerPoint presentation leaked by Edward Snowden last year. The program was run by DARPA's Information Awareness Office, whose stated motto is "Scientia Est Potentia," latin for "Knowledge is Power."

The government will have surveillance power and ultimate control over these new implants. Currently, authorities can shut down some cars remotely and soon, fugitive suspects might one day find themselves locked in their vehicles and transported directly to a police station. Is it inconceivable this technology will allow your own body to be used against you in a similar way? There's already precedent and you'd have to be incredibly naive to think the government doesn't want access to your thoughts in the same way it currently hordes tweets, Facebook posts and text messages.

(Editor's Note: The day before this article went to press, the BBC reported that the European Union is planning to mandate the installation of a device that would allow police to stop vehicles remotely.)

The Best Possible Light

Is it possible to retain democracy in the face of these inventions? Currently, the people are forced to accept technological innovation without knowing its consequences; they are presented with only the "best case scenario." We're taught that "technology is neutral." While this is technically true and obvious, it's also a bit naive to suggest that technology doesn't directly determine the form of our society.

For example, computers help us to access new information and help us to organize our thoughts in word processors or send messages across the globe, but they also allow for organizing massive amounts of information, an ability disproportionately beneficial to corporations. Indeed, globalism generally would be impossible without computers and instantaneous communication. We were shown the benefits of computer technology while the drawbacks are intentionally or unintentionally hidden.

If we were told in 1985 that the widespread availability of cell phones would significantly damage daily social interaction, negatively effect student learning at school, impair concentration and limit normal creative urges, we might make a different decision about whether to fully incorporate them into our lives. But this message of caution is never made available to the public, and on the rare occasions that the message does find its way to the public consciousness, it has been steadfastly ignored. True conservatism, that is the preservation of liberty at the expense of impulsive change, has always been a minority opinion in America.

The type of technological advancement being proposed tells us a lot about how it will be used, vague promises about restraint notwithstanding. So what does mind-reading hardware linked to a central network tell us about how it will be used? Many Americans have already been convicted on evidence taken from their social media accounts and text messages. Who will be the first one convicted because of a thought crime? Then there are the usual abuses of power. Thoughts shared over a network, even ones not intentionally shared, will be subject to economic use by states and corporations. Political dissidents will be corralled and silenced if they can be identified, while those who manage to maintain their privacy will be punished economically.

Even if limits are imposed, it won't end with consenting hardware users. The technology will reach a point where it is no longer detectable. Will anyone be sure their thoughts are safe from a government who recognizes no limits on its power in the name of national security? Will we need to install Wi-Fi blocking wallpaper to ensure our privacy, a sort of 21st century tin foil hat? The possibilities become more abstract and unbelievable as you look farther out, but even these scenarios are no more than 10 years away.

Under such an assault, democracy cannot survive, not that it's had great luck at all in recent years, but there seems to be no stopping these technological control mechanisms. Psychological problems will be compounded. Resistance to authority will be impossible. Art and beauty, an extension of a free mind, will be rare. The worst kind of human slavery will become possible, perhaps even probable. The human race has likely never faced darker circumstances. Barring a massive financial, political and societal collapse -- a kind of sudden stop to the tech juggernaut and which itself would likely cause its own problems -- a long night awaits us.

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