IT for Oppression
By Bruce Schneier
Whether it's Syria using Facebook to help identify and arrest dissidents or China using its "Great Firewall" to limit access to international news throughout the country, repressive regimes all over the world are using the Internet to more efficiently implement surveillance, censorship, propaganda, and control. They're getting really good at it, and the IT industry is helping. We're helping by creating business applications -- categories of applications, really -- that are being repurposed by oppressive governments for their own use:
Technology magnifies power, and there's no technical difference between a government and a corporation wielding it. This is how commercial security equipment from companies like BlueCoat and Sophos end up being used by the Syrian and other oppressive governments to surveil -- in order to arrest -- and censor their citizens. This is how the same face-recognition technology that Disney uses in its theme parks ends up identifying protesters in China and Occupy Wall Street protesters in New York.
There are no easy technical solutions, especially because these four applications -- censorship, propaganda, surveillance, and control -- are intertwined; it can be hard to affect one without also affecting the others. Anonymity helps prevent surveillance, but it also makes propaganda easier. Systems that block propaganda can facilitate censorship. And giving users the ability to run untrusted software on their computers makes it easier for governments -- and criminals -- to install spyware.
We need more research into how to circumvent these technologies, but it's a hard sell to both the corporations and governments that rely on them. For example, law enforcement in the US wants drones that can identify and track people, even as we decry China's use of the same technology. Indeed, the battleground is often economic and political rather than technical; sometimes circumvention research is itself illegal.
The social issues are large. Power is using the Internet to increase its power, and we haven't yet figured out how to correct the imbalances among government, corporate, and individual interests in our digital world. Cyberspace is still waiting for its Gandhi, its Martin Luther King, and a convincing path from the present to a better future.
Schneier.com is a personal website. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Co3 Systems, Inc.