The dystopian Arnold Schwarzenegger movie The Running Man has a horrifying scene I’ve never been able to get out of my head. An authoritarian regime has imprisoned Arnold and other men in an open-air prison. There is no fence around the compound. None is needed; each inmate wears a sleek collar wirelessly connected to a system monitoring the prison perimeter. It’s similar to those invisible-fence collars that give your dog a mild shock if he tries to cross your property line. Except your dog’s collar isn’t packed with explosives. One of Arnold’s fellow inmates tries to make a run for it. You can guess what happens next.
The Running Man was made in 1987 and set in 2017. Six years after that, I’m happy to report that America hasn’t yet devolved into a police state. But look across the Pacific to China. A generation ago, the smartest people all assumed that China was on its way to joining “the family of nations.” With the right trade agreements and diplomatic blandishments, we thought, we could nudge the Communist behemoth toward tolerant Western values. Instead, as National Review’s Jim Geraghty often says, today, “we’re not exporting our values to China, we’re importing theirs.” One of those values is the idea that a modern government needs to keep an unblinking eye on what its citizens are saying and doing.
China has been building its surveillance apparatus for years. Until recently, its network of cameras and facial-recognition software mostly targeted suspect minorities, including China’s Uyghur population and political protesters. (God help them both.) Eventually, all citizens were required to have a smartphone digital ID, one that includes facial recognition and other biometric information, in order to ride trains, check into hotels, or visit the doctor. China also started experimenting with a “social credit system,” which docks citizens for antisocial habits such as jaywalking or buying too much alcohol. China’s surveillance state took another great leap forward under Covid. On Twitter, a dissident who goes by the handle Songpinganq documents how China combined the digital ID with a Covid passport—creating an Orwellian hellscape. During China’s “Zero Covid” period, many residents were required to test almost daily. A clean test would grant them temporary access to transit, restaurants, workplaces, and the like. But if the phone screen turned red, alarms sounded, and the unlucky citizen might be bundled off to a quarantine camp.
Since then, Covid has eased, but China’s elaborate security restrictions have not. According to an Al Jazeera report, mass quarantine facilities in three Chinese provinces remain intact, “raising questions about the Chinese government’s post-pandemic plans for the now-defunct structures.” Last year some Chinese banks mysteriously locked customers out of their accounts. Depositors planning a protest were stymied when authorities “turned their health code apps red,” Reuters reported. “The pandemic was the perfect excuse to expand surveillance tech,” Songpinganq writes. It’s not quite as bad as forcing everyone to wear an exploding dog collar, but it’s getting there.
China built its surveillance state from the top down, with the government controlling each new encroachment on personal freedom. I worry that America is assembling a similar apparatus, but not by government fiat. We are building our digital panopticon from the bottom up. And we, the American people, are accepting this willingly, even eagerly. Think of the digital tools we use every day that drain off bits of our privacy and anonymity. Our phones are 24/7 tracking devices generating billowing clouds of data. Electric-vehicle manufacturers can track each EV’s location and monitor its systems. We even welcome digital snoops into our living rooms and bedrooms, as Roomba robots make maps of our homes and one-third of Americans use a digital voice assistant like Amazon Echo that listens to their conversations. Google Pay, Apple Pay, and similar online payment services turn our financial data over to the same companies that handle our email and other aspects of our digital lives.
In public spaces, facial-recognition software is becoming more common, and not just at airport security. Last year, a woman taking her daughter’s Girl Scout troop to see a Christmas show at New York’s Radio City Music Hall was pulled out of line by security guards. It turned out she had been flagged by a facial-recognition system installed by the venue’s owners, MSG Entertainment. According to the New York Times, MSG was using the system to enforce a kind of enemies list: The woman worked for a law firm that had been involved in a dispute with the sports and entertainment giant. So she was locked out of the Christmas Spectacular. Her lawyer called the move “a dystopian, shocking act of repression.” It might also be a signpost to the future.
Americans used to get their news from a wide array of newspapers, along with hundreds of radio and TV stations. Today, most of the information we consume is filtered through a small number of digital channels—Google, Twitter, Facebook, and few major news outlets. That makes it easier for powerful parties to boost or suppress particular news stories. In China, it’s nearly impossible to learn the facts about Tiananmen Square online. In the U.S., during the 2020 election, it was almost as hard to learn anything truthful about Hunter Biden’s laptop. (And, as TikTok supplants older media, China’s government can now handcraft the memes that massage young American minds.)
We allow the digital giants into our lives for convenience. We don’t mind sharing our car’s location with Tesla if it helps us find the closest charging station. We let Google tag our family photos with facial recognition because it helps us search our collections. These are separate, private companies, we tell ourselves. It’s not as if our data all feed into one seamless surveillance network like in China. But here’s the risk: We are building the components of a surveillance state ad hoc. Think of the different elements an authoritarian government needs to keep total control of its citizens. In almost every case, the U.S. already has a version of this in private hands: Real-time knowledge of each person’s location? Check. Access to personal communications? Check. Facial-recognition data? Check. Financial records? Check. News feeds that can be censored or manipulated? Check.
These are powerful weapons. Sooner or later the government, or other powerful entities, will start picking them up. This can happen in two ways. First, the authorities can seek access to these troves of data and tools of control. For example, according to Motherboard, hundreds of police departments work with Amazon’s Ring doorbell-camera division to nudge homeowners into sharing their security footage with police. Another company, called Clearview AI, recently bragged about building a facial-recognition database using 30 billion images it scraped from Facebook and other online sources. Clearview says it sells the data to the FBI and other law-enforcement agencies. Did anyone ask your permission to scrape your face off the Internet? Me neither. When Elon Musk opened up Twitter’s files to independent journalists, the records revealed that the FBI, the CIA, and other agencies regularly leaned on the company to censor accurate but inconvenient articles. And Twitter complied.
Second, increasingly, the digital giants have started behaving as if they’re the authorities. Last year, PayPal launched a policy to fine customers who use the service to “promote misinformation.” (It backed down after a backlash from conservatives.) Does anyone doubt that the social-media giants would have happily suppressed the laptop story or Covid lab-leak questions even without government pressure? What’s next? Will your next car prevent you from driving to the wrong sort of protest? Will Google alert your health-insurance company if you’re spending too much time at the bar?
The trend toward total surveillance won’t stop unless the American public raises a stink. But will we? Our world of digital assistants, funny online memes, and effortless online payments is a very comfortable one. As the late, great P.J. O’Rourke wrote a few years back, “my greatest fear is that when we arrive at this place of universal visibility and ubiquitous public knowledge of our thoughts and deeds, we’ll like it.” That dog collar isn’t so bad, once you get used to it.
Photo: AP Photo
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