2020 is the start of a new authoritarian era at an unprecedented scale

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by mission_improbables

I’ve been wanting to write this some time ago but I’ve finally dedicated some space for this. As this is the beginning of a new year, it’s good time to reflect on the state of surveillance, privacy and Internet freedom. There is a lot to say so I’ll try to be concise.

Not many people are openly recognizing the reality of the world we are living in. There is nothing futuristic about a dystopia. The dystopia is already here. Looking into the future, staying private or even anonymous online is becoming an impossible task for an increasingly wider scope of users, even advanced security experts. Machine learning, data mining and algorithmic development are progressing so fast and are getting so much better every day that it outpaces our human ability to adapt. Our current tools we used to rely on for better anonymity and privacy (such as Tor, E2EE, HTTPS, OTR, and FOSS), are becoming obsolete, if they already aren’t given enough time frame for certain targets. If you are exposed to these algorithms for long enough period of time, pattern recognition will be able to identify you with near absolute certainty, continuously track you, and even go back in time and re-link your old data points with your de-anonymized feed. If you are not familiar with pattern recognition, here is a simple anecdotal explanation:

Pattern recognition in modern terms is a use of advanced algorithms that instead of looking for specific identifiers, such as your face, facial recognition, or digital identities (device ID, IP address, phone numbers, accounts, etc.) looks at a certain behavior over a specific time frame trying to find a uniquely identifiable pattern. It turns out that your eyes, voice, face and fingerprints aren’t the only things unique to you. There are no two people on earth that walk the exact same way. There are no two people that hit keystrokes on a keyboard the exact same way. There are no two people that express speech (especially written) the exact same way. Even if you use Tor browser, your browser session can lead to your identity even if you have never signed in to any account, had JavaScript turned off and took all the necessary OPSEC precautions for strong anonymity.

Pattern recognition is not new. It’s a long-adopted practice of good old targeted police work. Pattern recognition is used by law enforcement to track down criminal Tor users, or law abiding journalists and activists that are too uncomfortable for the governing power. But until recently, humans were the lead of finding and recognizing patterns. But at the dawn of machine learning and big data, the grand chess master of pattern recongition is a computer.

This is a problem for two reasons. It further facilitates the state of having “no place to hide”, even though you shouldn’t have to hide. And the second reason to this problem is why you need a place to hide. It’s because algorithms are and forever will be biased. The bias comes from the data as well as from the programmers that developed it. There is no mechanism to sufficiently eliminate this bias. Even if all data from all individuals on earth is pulled 100% of the time, the basic utility function will always stem from a bias. It’s horrifying that algorithms are used in trials to assist judges determine their sentencing. And it turned out that these algorithms recommended harsher punishments for minorities even if they were less likely to re-offend than members of the majority population. Hiring algorithms are extensively used by HR departments across developed nations and they terrifyingly enforce gender stereotypes, discriminating against both genders for specific job positions and even salaries.

Other algorithms are used to determine scores for your consumer behavior, that companies use to give you a preferential treatment in case of a high score, or pushing you at the end of line in case of a low score. The issue is that you have absolutely no say in this judgement and it is taken by businesses at face value. You are not even aware this is happening as you are waiting in line trying to check in in a hotel. There is no consent from your part and there is nothing you can do to stop this.

Because of the unavoidable penetration of technology into our daily lives and private spheres, pattern recognition is the last nail in the coffin of our own private space, free from judgement and authority. It will further exacerbate authoritative hierarchical structures that are currently at play and are rigging the system against everyone that isn’t credit-worthy or doesn’t have major investments at the Federal Reserve. Pattern recognition will be able to retroactively identify all of your activities transmitted or recorded by digital technology 100% of the time you’ve used these technologies. Those who are already in power, including the economic establishment, major political parties and their leaders, deep state, law enforcement officials and intelligence agencies will be the first and most likely the only ones in possession of this power, and they will be able to unilaterally impose their will upon anyone who dares to question or challenge their position. Pattern recognition with the help of ever increasing reliance on machine learning algorithms will be the final gateway to an era of unprecedented authoritarianism. Combined with the further economic consolidation of major corporations monopolizing global markets across international borders, and ultimate corporate-government collusion that eliminates all lines between public and private spheres, the world is inevitably advancing into a techno-totalitarian superstate. And to the optimist skeptics out there that don’t see a problem in this, perhaps you’ll start noticing when the biggest Western corporations start merging with the biggest Chinese corporations. Maybe this will never happen, but maybe unicorns do exist. The trends are already set.

If somebody asks you the golden question “why privacy matters” or why they should care that somebody tracks them, there is no reason but one. Invasion of privacy gives somebody in possession of the information about you a decision-making power over you. This is the only reason why privacy has any value. People possessing your private data can and do raise prices of products and services to squeeze more money out of you, they can manipulate your purchasing behavior, they can engineer your emotions and even your psychological states by crafting messages, feeds, posts and news on your social media, they can manufacture a desired response from you that benefits their position (practice often used for political advantage), they can orchestrate your reactionary behavior in ways that can be used against you in the court of law. Psychologists, marketers, campaigners and propagandists are willing to kill for every piece of data point about you. The more they know the more they feed their algorithms that in turn categorize you into a box along with other people who you might have thought you had nothing in common.

None of this is happening secretly. This is all something we are witnessing on small doses every day bit by bit. Everything has been covered by the media at some point, there have been people in opposition to this. Some of whom have faced having their reputations destroyed due to manufactured outrage and cancel culture, despite them being foundational figures of the movement we so desperately need. There are divisions among the people aggravated by algorithmic structuring of our online interactions. The only thing secret about this are algorithms themselves that are tightly protected by unfairly expanded copyright and patent laws. If we sit back and don’t do anything, we’ll end up waking up in a world where individual freedoms no longer mean anything, because national security and profitability became paramount.

Citizens are being blackmailed into using centralized structures in their daily lives, only for the owners of those structures to then turn around against them and use their position for more consolidation, profit and power. We need a movement that will represent an unbeatable opposition to this. We need to deliver a distributed denial of service attack to the trends of centralization and surveillance. We need to be more vocal about this. Organizations like the EFF need to acknowledge this reality while artistically avoiding the pitfalls of sounding like doomsayers. Because this is not a doom of the world. The world will go on just fine with or without free speech on the Internet. Just like the Kingdom of England continued just fine with or without the Thirteen Colonies. We need to find substantive lines which we’ll never stop fighting for and can be delivered in a digestible manner to any electorate.

One such substantive line could be a requirement that any and all government contracts where public funding from tax payers’ money goes to private companies, should only fund fully Free and Open Source products. There should be no copyright or patent restrictions on software or hardware paid for by the people. This would significantly bring down the costs of public spending on technology and it would also undeniably boost competition and eliminate barriers that protect monopolized positions of Microsoft, Google, Intel, Dell, IBM and Apple. Why should the public pay for Windows and Microsoft Office licenses used by government employees, when they can just as easily use FOSS alternatives such as Linux or Libre Office at no cost? And top of that, Linux is way more secure and stable than Windows, and it’s easier to maintain and update a Linux system than a Windows one. And if Microsoft wants that deal, they’d better comply or lose the market to Linux. It really is a scandal, that we are willing to prop up Microsoft’s monopoly, when there are plenty of small developers and businesses contributing enthusiastically to the Linux code, and give it away at no cost. If any political campaign takes donations from Microsoft, Google or any one of the Big Tech corps, or if they take their employees as campaign staffers, that alone should be a disqualifying factor, a major conflict of interest and corruptible conduct.

This is just one example of many substances we can engage in and implement. In 2020, it’s too late to remain cynical. We need to fight for our ideals and fight for everything that makes the Internet a good thing to have. We need to put aside our differences and resist the manufactured outrage of cancel culture. Our real enemies are those that profit or otherwise benefit from the decrease of our liberties, freedom of speech and privacy.

If you are reading this far, thank you for your patience. Feel free to share this post or its message wherever you like. I welcome all the feedback and criticism. If you think I am wrong, I wanna hear it so that I can improve my arguments or change my mind.

Thank you all for 2019 and I wish you all the best in 2020.


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