The Impact of Technology on Ethics
Public Safety and Privacy
In the immediate aftermath of the September 11th attacks, the “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001”, commonly abbreviated as the USA PATRIOT Act, was quickly enacted in the name of national security. It implemented many amendments to the existing surveillance laws, which greatly enhances the government’s abilities to track internet activities, collect bank and credit card reports, and monitor phone and email communications. Many provisions of the PATRIOT Act were meant to be in effect for only four years (until December 2005), but succeeding governments, regardless of partisanship, have continuously reauthorized the act. Unsurprisingly, this has resulted in mounting suspicions that the PATRIOT act, rather than being a law to catch foreign terrorists, is actually a governmental mass surveillance scheme that targets ordinary American citizens.
ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), a major opponent of the PATRIOT act, provided several alarming and shocking facts. Between 2003 and 2005 alone, the FBI issued almost 150000 National Security Letters (NSLs), which allow agents to monitor and obtain personal information without court approval. Those NSLs, however, only leads to 53 criminal referrals and none of them is related to terrorism. Furthermore, the act does not require the FBI to destroy the obtained personal information, even if the concerned individuals are deemed to be innocent. Besides NSLs, the PATRIOT act also enabled law enforcement agents to perform “sneak & peek” searches, meaning that a house can be entered and searched while the occupant is away and without a search warrant if a delayed notice is provided later. Again, out of the 3940 “sneak & peek” searches conducted in 2010, less than 1% is related to terroristic-causes while a whopping 76% are drug-related. ACLU and others argue that these practices allowed through the PATRIOT act constitutes a massive breach to personal privacy and directly challenges the fourth amendment of the US constitution.
The debates and controversies stirred up by the PATRIOT act, or government mass surveillance in general, is made possible mainly through advances in technology. For example, improved processing powers of computers and development of new algorithms have enabled the aggregation, analysis, and storage of enormous amounts of information, now commonly referred to as “big data”. Large internet corporations, such as Google and Facebook, have capitalized on this technological advance to collect detailed personal information at an unprecedent scale, which can be used to perform consumer research but potentially also predatory business practices that target vulnerable populations. The US government also utilized big data technologies to perform mass surveillance on the population. For example, XKeyscore is a secret software system used by the NSA on a daily basis to search and analyze global internet communication data. The massive improvements made in other types of technologies in recent years, including video surveillance, face recognition, electronic tracking, further enhance the abilities of private corporations and government agencies to monitor individuals and their activities. The Orwellian world from the novel “1984” have never been so close to reality.
This authoritarian life is coming true on the other side of the globe. China has been working on building a high-tech authoritarian future. With the crucial help from its thriving technology industry, the Chinese government aims to assemble a vast and unprecedented national surveillance system. In some cities, there are already facial recognition cameras scanning at train stations for wanted criminals, and billboards that display portraits of people who are not being good citizens. It is estimated that China already has around 200 million surveillance cameras – four times as many as the United States. Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, has launched a major upgrade of the Chinese mass surveillance capabilities. The country has become the world’s biggest market for security and surveillance technology, with analysts estimating the country will have almost 300 million cameras installed by 2020. Many cities that adopted this surveillance system responded positively to the result of it. There have been decreasing number of jaywalking, and complete cease of bike theft in some buildings that installed facial recognition gate system. “The whole point is that people don’t know if they’re being monitored, and that uncertainty makes people more obedient,” said Mr. Chorzempa, the Peterson Institute fellow. He described the approach as a panopticon, the idea that people will follow the rules precisely because they don’t know whether they are being watched. (The New York Times)
In a 2009 interview with a former CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt, he was asked about all the problems his company is causing invasions of privacy worldwide, his reply was – “If you’re doing something that you don’t want other people to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place”. However, he also ordered his employees at Google to cease speaking with the online Internet magazine CNET after the magazine published an article about Schmidt’s personal information, which ironically was obtained from Google services and products. Another infamous interview about privacy invasion in 2010 was made by the CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg. In it, Zuckerberg mentioned that privacy is no longer a “social norm”. In contrast to what he said, he purchased not only their house but also all four adjacent houses in Palo Alto in order to ensure that his family could enjoy a zone of privacy without having other people monitoring what the family does in their personal lives.
The question of why privacy matters, a question that has arisen in the context of a global debate, enabled by the revelations of Edward Snowden that the United States and its partners, unbeknownst to the entire world, has converted the Internet, once heralded as an unprecedented tool of liberation and democratization, into an unprecedented zone of mass, indiscriminate surveillance. Mass surveillance system suppresses the basic human rights of having privacy and renders people’s choice of action. The renowned socialist activist Rosa Luxemburg once said, “He who does not move, does not notice his chains.” The system may be seemed harmless to some, but the constraints that imposes on the us do not become any less potent. To determine how free a society is, is not based on how it treats its good, obedient, compliant citizens, but how it treats its dissidents and those who resist orthodoxy.References
Greenwald, Glenn. Ted, Ted,
www.ted.com/talks/glenn_greenwald_why_privacy_mattersThe Intercept. “NSA’s Google for the World’s Private Communications.” The Intercept, 1 July 2015,
www.theintercept.com/2015/07/01/nsas-google-worlds-private-communications/Mozur, Paul. “Inside China’s Dystopian Dreams: A.I., Shame and Lots of Cameras.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 8 July 2018,
www.nytimes.com/2018/07/08/business/china-surveillance-technology.html?fbclid=IwAR3HOhR3m6hCKlEkm_GGLdJjGSDGc3jnKO1PW4QNaUNtaGVv7ZbBBm7ZaNQ”Surveillance Technologies.” American Civil Liberties Union, Aclu,
www.aclu.org/issues/privacy-technology/surveillance-technologies”Surveillance Under the Patriot Act.” American Civil Liberties Union, Aclu,