July 17, 2019

Want Privacy? Avoid the Internet

“In our age of digital connection and constantly online life, you might say that two political regimes are evolving, one Chinese and one Western, which offer two kinds of relationships between the privacy of ordinary citizens and the newfound power of central authorities to track, to supervise, to expose and to surveil.

The first regime is one in which your every transaction can be fed into a system of ratings and rankings, in which what seem like merely personal mistakes can cost you your livelihood and reputation, even your ability to hail a car or book a reservation. It’s one in which notionally private companies cooperate with the government to track dissidents and radicals and censor speech; one in which your fellow citizens act as enforcers of the ideological consensus, making an example of you for comments you intended only for your friends; one in which even the wealth and power of your overlords can’t buy privacy.

The second regime is the one they’re building in the People’s Republic of China.

This is a dark joke; it isn’t meant to minimize the horrors of China’s march into information-age totalitarianism. Beginning with its successful taming of the internet, Beijing has treated the darkest episodes of “Black Mirror” as a how-to guide for social control and subjugation — with “social credit” scores and official public shamings for people whose daily conduct disappoints, official Communist Party apps that you’d better use if you know what’s good for you, surveillance technologies and facial recognition software as boots on the back of nonapproved religions, and compulsory internet as part of the brutal, tech-enabled replay of the Cultural Revolution imposed in China’s Muslim west.”

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