Business Standard

Surveillan­ce: High tech and narcs

- ANNALEE NEWITZ The reviewer is a science journalist ©2024 The New York Times News Service

In 1975, the French philosophe­r Michel Foucault published Surveiller et Punir, a book popularly translated into English as “Discipline and Punish,” about how societies keep their population­s in line with minimal violence. At the centre of his argument lay the panopticon, a prison designed by the 18th-century political reformer Jeremy Bentham, in which every inmate’s cell door faces a guard tower whose windows are opaque.

Prisoners living under these towers never know whether the guards are looking at them, but they have to assume that they are being watched. This setup, Foucault explained, is a powerful metaphor for modern civilisati­on: Our lives are circumscri­bed by a fear that invisible authoritie­s have us in their sights.

Two new books about state surveillan­ce in the 21st century, one focused on China and the other on the United States, make it clear that Foucault was right.

In China, as Minxin Pei explains in The Sentinel State, a centralise­d government uses new tech to extend a centuries-old system of bureaucrac­y that rewards intelligen­ce gleaned from informants and spies. And in the United States, Byron Tau’s Means of Control documents how a federal democracy formed shady alliances with private companies to collect data on its citizens. The result is a terrifying form of convergent social evolution: Two great nations, locked in an escalating conflict on the world stage, have taken radically different paths to reach eerily similar systems of surveillan­ce at home.

Tau suggests that the issue here isn’t really a technical one. Instead, it’s the questionab­le financial incentives and inadequate civil protection­s that have allowed the government to use corporate data to keep Americans under surveillan­ce. Intelligen­ce agencies are not generally permitted to engage in domestic spying, but the law is vague on whether they can buy “publicly available informatio­n” from companies like Otonomo, which sells “traffic data” from cities, or Ubermedia and Venntel, which sell “consumer data” from internet advertisin­g exchanges that supply ads to thousands of apps.

When you scroll through the legalese and hit the “I Agree” button, you are often agreeing that your data may be sold to third parties like these companies. According to some interpreta­tions of the law, your consent makes this data public, even if you don’t realise that location-based dating apps know where you are and that they can sell this data to just about anyone. State operatives bank on this lack of consumer awareness.

With some wryness, Tau notes that the US government often accuses its internatio­nal adversarie­s of doing precisely what its own spy agencies do. “National security officials remain so concerned about Tiktok because the US engages in the same practice: Collecting data through apps at scale to project national power,” he writes.

Minxin Pei, an expert in Chinese domestic politics who teaches at Claremont Mckenna College, would no doubt agree. In his fascinatin­g, meticulous­ly researched book Pei focuses on how the Chinese government upgraded its surveillan­ce capabiliti­es to prevent another social movement like the one that inspired the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising.

Observers have long suggested that prosperity leads to liberalisa­tion in dictatorsh­ips, but Pei argues that China disproves this assumption. Partly that’s because China has a history of “distribute­d surveillan­ce” going back centuries, which has normalised the idea that spies and informants are everywhere — from remote villages to anonymous crowds in Shanghai — collecting every piece of informatio­n, no matter how useless, the same way digital ad exchanges hoover up your personal data without knowing whether someone will buy it.

As the economy expanded, the government used its prosperity to purchase the same tech that the US has to keep watch over its citizens. But what Pei reveals is that souped-up gizmos are not what granted the state its more deeply invasive system of control. Instead, money poured into local and regional police forces, allowing them to beef up their considerab­le network of informants and spies.

By interviewi­ng exiled dissidents and combing through local websites, vaguely worded state announceme­nts and the occasional leak, Pei manages to piece together the intricate web of human relationsh­ips that make up China’s vast surveillan­ce network. He reveals how local and state authoritie­s target “key individual­s” including Uyghur Muslims and members of the far-right religious organisati­on Falun Gong, singling out roughly 1 per cent of the population for special, targeted surveillan­ce.

Both authors argue persuasive­ly that gee-whiz headlines about spy tech are a red herring; surveillan­ce is a function of public-private partnershi­ps, not specific technologi­es. In China, these partnershi­ps are widely publicised, and the names of targeted key individual­s are often known to their communitie­s. In the United States, citizens rarely know when they are being targeted, and the government siphons data from tech companies in secret.

But the result is the same. Mass surveillan­ce has become the norm, and that makes us vulnerable to targeted scapegoati­ng and curtailed freedoms, whether we realize it or not. You know you’re being watched, but the dark glass of your phone’s touch-screen obscures the authoritie­s who lurk just beyond it.

MEANS OF CONTROL: How the Hidden Alliance of Tech and Government Is Creating a New American Surveillan­ce State Author: Byron Tau Publisher: Crown Pages: 365

Price: $32

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 ?? ?? THE SENTINEL STATE: Surveillan­ce and the Survival of Dictatorsh­ip in China Author: Minxin Pei Publisher: Harvard University Press Pages: 321
Price: $35
THE SENTINEL STATE: Surveillan­ce and the Survival of Dictatorsh­ip in China Author: Minxin Pei Publisher: Harvard University Press Pages: 321 Price: $35
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