Chris’ note: As we discussed in yesterday’s dispatch, the new iPhone update has struck a blow against digital surveillance by Facebook, Google, and other Silicon Valley snoops. It allows you to block them from harvesting your data and selling it to advertisers.
That’s great, if people use the new feature to block digital snoops. But most folks don’t care that they’re targets of digital spying.
In today’s Q&A edition of the Cut, Bonner-Denning Letter coauthor Dan Denning shows why that’s a mistake. Digital surveillance isn’t just an attack on your right to privacy. It’s also an attack on how you think and act. And if you think a surveillance state could never take root in the land of the free… Dan has some bad news for you.
Chris Lowe: Your mission at The Bonner-Denning Letter is to help your readers preserve their wealth from dangers others overlook or ignore. One of these dangers is a Chinese-style surveillance state coming to America. For folks who don’t know what’s going on in China, can you fill them in?
Dan: President Xi Jinping’s authoritarian government in China wants to put a digital dragnet over an entire society.
The Chinese feds use facial recognition software and artificial intelligence to turn the security cameras that already scan roads, shopping malls, and airports into a kind of all-seeing eye. They know where everyone is, what they’re doing, and if they’re breaking the rules.
The government also assigns citizens a “social credit” score. It uses this score to limit what a citizen can do. If you break the rules, the government docks your score. If you get a low enough score, it bans you from getting on planes and trains. It stops you from staying in certain hotels. It bars you from working for state-run companies. It even stops your kids from going to certain schools. You become a second-class citizen.
Chris: China is thousands of miles away. Our readers may have been aware there’s a digital police state there. But they’re not worried about that kind of thing taking root in the U.S. Are they right to be so complacent?
Dan: No, they’re not. Americans are sleepwalking into a version of the Chinese surveillance state.
Every time we use Facebook, for instance, we voluntarily submit to surveillance. More than 220 million Americans use Facebook. Each of them willingly shares their most private and personal details with this for-profit surveillance company. It’s crazy when you think about it…
With Facebook, the idea is to share everything you do with everyone you know. But when you share a photo of yourself at a concert, or comment on a news story, you’re not sharing it with just your friends. You’re also sharing it with Facebook… and all the stakeholders it shares that data with.
These include the U.S. government and its intelligence agencies. We know that thanks to the internal National Security Agency (NSA) documents whistleblower Edward Snowden made public in 2013.
And since the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal broke in 2018, we know political campaign strategists use this data to influence our voting decisions. [In 2016, Facebook allowed a third-party app to harvest the personal data of 87 million Facebook users, without their permission, to sell to political campaigns.] They serve us micro-targeted ads to “nudge” us into voting for the candidate they’re working for. They’re manipulating how we think and act.
Worse, the government could use your social media data to identify you as a threat. It could use what you like, post, and share to build a profile of you… a kind of digital avatar. It could categorize you as a terrorist, a loner, or even – like me – a lover of cash, limited government, and individual liberty.
Chris: Can you give a concrete example of how this could play out?
Dan: Imagine you go to a bar. You have a few beers. Instead of going to dinner, you order some more beer. But when you go to pay for the next one, your card is declined.
Not because you don’t have enough dollars in your account. But because the feds say, “According to our records, you haven’t eaten enough calories today. We know your body weight. Four standard drinks is too much for you. You’re banned from buying more drinks tonight.”
Or maybe you go for dinner, and they tell you, “Our records show you’ve eaten too much cholesterol this week. You’re not allowed to order the steak.”
There’s a sphere of behavior we used to consider private. But once all the data about our behavior is in one place, the state can pass laws to regulate it. It can then enforce these laws by algorithm.
An algorithm is just a rule for making decisions. In the world we’re heading for, decisions we used to make for ourselves will become automated. People say it’s crazy… dystopian even. But it’s where we’re headed.
Chris: Sounds like bad news for folks who like to live free.
Dan: It’s a disaster for your freedom. Before, the default was: “You’re free to do it unless you break the law.” Now, it’s: “You’re free to do it as long as we give you permission.”
That goes against the founding principles of the U.S. We’re supposed to have certain “inalienable” rights. The state doesn’t grant us these rights. We’re born with them.
The Bill of Rights spelled out these rights. So the government could shove it if it wanted to scale them back. At least, it would have a hard time doing so.
But the Founding Fathers didn’t have to get past Facebook or Google. They couldn’t have predicted the rise of an algorithm-driven police state, where every action you take is recorded, cataloged, and used to nudge you into thinking in the “correct” way or taking the “correct” action.
Chris: Is there anything we can do to reverse this trend?
Dan: Sadly, I don’t think so. Look at how widely we adopted these surveillance technologies – Gmail, YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram. Or how quickly we got used to using cards and apps instead of cash to pay for stuff.
It reminds me of the chutes you send cattle down when they go to the slaughterhouse. They go only one way. Once you’re inside, the only way out is toward the bolt gun.
Chris: What can our readers do about this?
Dan: There are two approaches…
First, you could say, “Whatever. It’s just the modern world. There’ll be some restrictions on what the authorities can do. Let’s hope it’s not as bad as some people say.”
This is naïve. But it’s probably what most people think.
The second approach is to “go dark.”
Chris: What do you mean by that?
Dan: Google and Facebook are what I call “self-reporting systems”…
For example, if you’ve got a phone that runs Google’s Android operating system, you’re constantly broadcasting to the company’s servers exactly where you are in the world.
Facebook is based on you sharing everything you do with everyone else. Not just your friends, but also anyone else that cares to look… including Deep State snoops.
It’s why I recommend you opt out of these systems NOW… and stop self-reporting to the authorities.
The first and most important step is to delete your Facebook account. We think we have to be connected all the time. But by staying on the platform, you’re sharing massive amounts of your personal data with the world. You can’t be a private citizen and be on Facebook. Find out how to pull the plug here.
Second, de-Google your life. The way to stop Google from tracking every web search you type and every webpage you visit is to ditch Google Search and the Google Chrome web browser. DuckDuckGo won’t track you like Google does. And it offers a decent search service.
Third, download an encrypted messenger app. Conversations on WhatsApp (which Facebook owns) are encrypted… for now. But the feds recently requested Facebook allow them to spy on peer-to-peer conversations on its messaging app.
Fourth, buy a “dumb” phone… or an iPhone. The latest update of the iPhone’s iOS operating system allows users to stop apps from tracking them. [For more on this update, catch up on yesterday’s Cut.]
Meanwhile, I’ll keep ringing the alarm bell. You can be the wealthiest person in the world and build your own fortress. But if you live in a digital police state – and I believe that’s where we’re headed – you’re behind your own walls in a well-appointed prison.