From a cashless society to biometric surveillance: a terror-era to come?

George Orwell may have been right, but simply a little off schedule. Regarding fundamental liberties, nothing of consequence happened in 1984. But 30 years later, large-scale societal shifts have occurred in creeping silence, which undermine our basic freedoms, with our unknowing and careless consent.

In the course of the 1990s, personal computers started coming into homes, quickly to be connected to a new service called the Internet. Barely a decade or two later, the connected services coming through our devices have pervaded into many more objects and, more importantly, out of our direct sight. Today, the Internet of Things relies on networks which carry so much data on a daily basis that it's actually difficult to find out exactly how much : the figures have become so astronomical (and hard to conceive) that we've basically stopped counting : "By the end of 2016, global Internet traffic will reach 1.1 zettabytes per year, and by 2019, global traffic is expected to hit 2 zettabytes per year", according [1] to Cisco. And only a fraction of this traffic is data that we actually produce and control, the rest being automated server-to-server or thing-to-thing communication, which happens without our direct involvement - a dream come true for hackers or agents wishing to gain information discretely.

With near 75% smartphone ownership [2] in North America and Europe, 3 in 4 citizens walk around cameras and microphones which can easily be broken into and used as silent bugs. And even excluding any foul play, our connected devices generate enormous amounts of data about us, every day in silence, which slowly constitutes our digital profile. Assuming we carry our smartphones every day, Google can recollect every place we have been over the past years, far better than we can.

Completing the 'information" aspect of our lives, comes the no-less important financial facet. Ranging from purchasing a home to the most menial financial operations, our acquisitions form a frame and canvas to our existence, which various operators are very interested [3] in. The reduction of our liberties took far longer in that domain : bartering, which was the initial trading vector, relied on no third party [4] and merely required a willing and able trading partner. Then came money [5], which did involve the State creating the currency but leaving us independently leading our business operations with no external monitoring : once the money was acquired, we were free to spend it as we pleased with no one controlling it.

But cash has been slipping away [6] from our societies, with States and corporations welcoming the societal shift and pushing towards it. With the rise of virtual payments, through debit cards, smartphones, NFC devices, smart watches and others, our financial operations now map out our purchases and whereabouts on server logs with detailed information which can be accessed by banks, businesses and government surveillance agencies. While such payment methods are indeed practical, they all bear the same inherent threat to liberty in common: whenever a citizen uses them to pay for anything, someone is potentially watching, with him none the wiser. As libertarian watchdog Brett Scott says, "'Cashless society' is a euphemism for the "ask-your-banks-for-permission-to-pay society"". The only payment medium which leaves the citizen to operate freely as he pleases, for better or worse, is cash, and it's on its demise [7].

And finally, comes the government layer, which historically grows steadily until a major disruption sets back its monitoring capacities. In the case of Europe, governments have been re-building their monitoring capacities since the end of World War 2 (with a boost period during the Cold War), while the United States have patiently been weaving theirs since 1776. Beijing displays a staggering CCTV camera density of 470 000, and before decrying their communist-dictatorial, freedom-killing state-monitoring apparatus, we ought to remember that has roughly the same figure (420 000), despite being less than half the size of Beijing, thus tripling the rate. In an average trip or commute, we will be silently and discreetly checked and policed many times without our noticing, by various state or private operators. At the highest level, the Echelon system [8], which was exposed by various sources over the past decade, can intercept and record signal communications of all nature (email, chat, telephone and satellite). Whether it is truly unable to intercept encrypted communications such as Telegram or Whatsapp, or it simply claims to, is unclear. Anti-terrorist forces are greatly helped by State capacity to eavesdrop into private communications, foiling most plots before the come into play.

One key word is to retain from these three major threats to our freedom, which amount to the kiss of death: convenience. Our society has sold its freedoms for convenience. Mass media, which include social networking sites gives us terrific convenience. They give us a chance to store send and share our pictures, news and updates with everyone and anyone in the world, with unprecedented ease - and free of charge. But marketers warn: "if it's free, you're the product". In exchange for the convenience, we hand over every detail about ourselves, our families, activities and whereabouts, to large corporations - giving them unequalled power. Governments provide us with something we demand: security. And the only price to pay is our gentle, silent compliance with their increased control measures.

The devil's main victory, they say, is convincing us it doesn't exist. Popular media depict dictatorships as dark, hard-looking, boot-marching regimes which show their harshness. But if freedom really died this way, no one would ever let it die. Mass surveillance always comes with a good excuse and without noise. In our case, it has already started rooting in deeply, and there is space for further progress.


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