NSA leaker Edward Snowden appeared via video satellite last week at a Tel Aviv-based conference organized by media consultancy firm Orenstein Hoshen, dealing with the subject of technology in the hands of government. While praising Israel’s tech industry, he also emphasized the need for accountability; there was, he claimed, a dark underbelly that is too often ignored regarding the usage of tech by regimes with unsavory motives. Snowden went so far as to accuse Israeli firm NSO of passing on technology to the Saudis that allowed them to monitor murdered journalist and regime critic Jamal Khashoggi, last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2nd. In response, former Mossad deputy chief Ram Ben Barak decried Snowden’s claims, defending NSO and stating that intelligence gathering and its accompanying technology, particularly in a state like Israel, was necessary to deter and prevent terror attacks and expose criminals.
Much has already been written about the way in which technology—and, in particular, social media—has been cynically exploited by populist leaders as a means of propagating their political messages free from media interference, fabricating ‘fake news’, and reinforcing their followers’ echo chambers. This is also evident in the phenomenon of ultra nationalists who use conspiracy theories to radicalize others online, sometimes leading to violent incidents, as was the case in Pittsburgh only weeks ago. But seemingly innocuous technology has also been used in other ways that negatively impacts citizens, with repressive governments targeting human rights activists, journalists, and members of the opposition who are deemed a threat to the regime. Snowden gave an unsettling example of one manner in which government targets easily came under surveillance through the unfortunate choice of simply clicking on a link in an email. By doing so, he explained, operatives would be able to download all information on their phone, and take control of the device’s camera and microphone, allowing for covert surveillance that could be used to prosecute or blackmail individuals.
Yet nowhere is the abuse of technology more glaringly evident than Xinjiang, or East Turkistan, China’s westernmost province and home to a Turkic-speaking minority group known as the Uighurs. Long viewed with suspicion by the government due to their adherence to Islam and their cultural uniqueness (in many cases accused of outright separatism), the native population has come under surveillance by the government, which has utilized cutting-edge tech to create an almost-Orwellian state of existence. Surveillance cameras line the streets and police officers regularly check passerby’s smart phones for incriminating apps; train stations and airports are equipped with iris scanners to immediately identify passengers; and an “integrated joints operation platform” stores an individual’s information, ranging from their bank account down to their very DNA. It is all eerily similar to what futurist thinker Yuval Noah Harari prophesied about government attempts to “hack human beings”.
Apartment buildings are sometimes marked with ‘bar codes’ in order to make sure that officials ‘mark’ their visit to a particular place. In an example of life imitating art, a points-based system keeps track of residents’ behavior; mundane actions deemed disloyal to the state lead to demerits. Lose enough points and you and your family members may be sent to a ‘school’, or one of the many reeducation centers that have infamously cropped up over the last few years in the region. China, has, in effect, created a dystopian world on par with something out of a novel or film, all with the help of the latest technological breakthroughs.
While we justifiably tend to emphasize the progressive aspects of technology that improve people’s lives, too often we forget that even tools which appear harmless can be twisted and weaponized to cause terrible damage to civilians and those seeking to push back against government excesses. Whether Snowden’s claims are true or not, it behooves members of the tech community to do their due diligence when considering their clients, as well as the manner in which their creations might be used in ways that could not have expected.