Two Roads Diverged in a Digital Wood


By now it’s no longer restricted to individual companies or even to the internet sector. It has spread across a wide range of products, services, and economic sectors, including insurance, retail, healthcare, finance, entertainment, education, transportation, and more, birthing whole new ecosystems of suppliers, producers, customers, market-makers, and market players. Nearly every product or service that begins with the word “smart” or “personalised”, every internet-enabled device, every “digital assistant”, is simply a supply-chain interface for the unobstructed flow of behavioural data on its way to predicting our futures in a surveillance economy.

– From the must read piece: ‘The Goal Is to Automate Us’: Welcome to the Age of Surveillance Capitalism

A lot of my content over the past couple of years has focused on the momentous geopolitical changes I see on the horizon, and this macro perspective reaches two significant conclusions. First, that the planet is moving away from a unipolar world dominated almost entirely by the U.S. toward a more multi-polar world. Second, that this fundamental shift in geopolitical landscape, coupled with what appears to be a forthcoming reckoning with the largest global debt bubble in human history, will lead to a once in a generation reset of the world economy and the global financial system that keeps it functioning.

As has become increasingly clear in recent months, the two primary protagonists in this major historical shift are the U.S. and China. While I’ve speculated about how increased tensions between these two economic giants will likely usher in the end of globalization as we know it (and possibly a bifurcated global economy), I’ve spent less time talking about what the internal situations will look like within individual countries themselves. This is a major oversight because what really matters to Chinese and U.S. citizens ten years from now isn’t which nation has more military bases abroad, but what will everyday life be like for regular people?

In this regard, China and the U.S. both seem to be headed in similar and very dystopian directions when it comes to the freedom-destroying marriage of overbearing government and ubiquitous surveillance technology. I read a couple of excellent articles on this topic over the past week, which forced the issue to the top of my mind. In other words, does it really matter who wins the geopolitical game of risk if “we the people” end up being controlled, surveilled and completely subjugated by the very technology we so eagerly embraced and assumed would make the world a more liberated place just a few years ago?

Everyone reading this is probably aware of the mind-bogglingly creepy and terrifying social credit system being unveiled in China. The first paragraph of a recent must read Wired article, Is Big Tech Merging with Big Brother? Kinda Looks like It, puts the situation into stark terms:

A friend of mine, who runs a large television production company in the car-mad city of Los Angeles, recently noticed that his intern, an aspiring filmmaker from the People’s Republic of China, was walking to work.

When he offered to arrange a swifter mode of transportation, she declined. When he asked why, she explained that she “needed the steps” on her Fitbit to sign in to her social media accounts. If she fell below the right number of steps, it would lower her health and fitness rating, which is part of her social rating, which is monitored by the government. A low social rating could prevent her from working or traveling abroad.

Most Americans will read this and think there’s no way this could happen here, but the truth is a lot more complicated, and in some respects we’re at least headed in a similar direction.

We live in a situation where we still have Constitutional protections like freedom of speech on paper, but with so much of the public discussion being dominated by a couple of tech giants who ban people arbitrarily, it’s being eroded in practice. As I noted in last year’s piece, Americans Need Social Media Guided by the Rights Enshrined in the U.S. Constitution:

I say in theory because in practice we’re learning how easily speech can be marginalized to the point of becoming erased from public discourse. We’ve allowed the digital public square to be dominated by corporations focused on profit maximization and whose policies quite explicitly do not reflect the law of the land and values that we supposedly hold dear.

If you’re like me and you think the civil liberties enshrined in the U.S. Constitution are fundamental to who we are as a people, it must necessarily be unacceptable that a handful of private technology corporations that do not adhere to these principles have dominated the rails of public communication to the point a handful of executives get to decide what acceptable speech is.

But it’s even worse than that. The tech giants are in bed with government or government-funded institutions in one way or the other, so to simply characterize them as private companies isn’t really accurate. Though it may come as a surprise, I think Amazon is the most pernicious and dangerous of them all. Worse than Google and even worse than Facebook.

The aforementioned Wired article touches on the Amazon problem. For example:

Last year, Amazon Web Services announced the opening of the new AWS Secret Region, the result of a 10-year, $600 million contract the company won from the CIA in 2014. This made Amazon the sole provider of cloud services across “the full range of data classifications, including Unclassified, Sensitive, Secret, and Top Secret,” according to an Amazon corporate press release.

Once the CIA’s Amazon-administered self-contained servers were up and running, the NSA was quick to follow suit, announcing its own integrated big-data project. Last year the agency moved most of its data into a new classified computing environment known as the Intelligence Community GovCloud, an integrated “big data fusion environment,” as the news site NextGov described it, that allows government analysts to “connect the dots” across all available data sources, whether classified or not.

The creation of IC GovCloud should send a chill up the spine of anyone who understands how powerful these systems can be and how inherently resistant they are to traditional forms of oversight, whose own track record can be charitably described as poor.

Amazon’s IC GovCloud was quickly countered by Microsoft’s secure version of its Azure Government cloud service, tailored for the use of 17 US intelligence agencies. Amazon and Microsoft are both expected to be major bidders for the Pentagon’s secure cloud system, the Joint Enterprise Defense Initiative—JEDI—a winner-take-all contract that will likely be worth at least $10 billion.

With so many pots of gold waiting at the end of the Washington, DC, rainbow, it seems like a small matter for tech companies to turn over our personal data—which legally speaking, is actually their data—to the spy agencies that guarantee their profits. This is the threat that is now emerging in plain sight. It is something we should reckon with now, before it’s too late.

You can’t really read the above and simply refer to Amazon as a private company. The truth of the matter is Amazon at this stage is kinda part of the government, and it should be treated that way. It should be subject to far more transparency and oversight at the very least, if not broken up. This should be a consequence of being so intimately tied to U.S. intelligence agencies. Do you really trust a company making so much money from contracts with spooks to keep your information private and free from rampant surveillance? You shouldn’t, and nobody should.

Amazon, which both collects and analyzes consumer data and sells a wide range of consumer home devices with microphones and cameras in them, may present surveillance agencies with especially tempting opportunities to repurpose their existing microphones, cameras, and data.

While Amazon troubles me the most, all the tech giants are deeply problematic and present a real threat to freedom, privacy and human dignity.  Yes, the situation is that serious.

Unbeknownst to many, these companies so dominate how the internet itself works, it’s virtually impossible to get away from them. For example, a Gizmodo journalist recently tried to stop interacting with Amazon for a week and found it was impossible. Essentially, if you want to use the internet at all, you can’t really avoid Amazon.

Ultimately, though, we found Amazon was too huge to conquer.

AWS is the internet’s largest cloud provider, generating 0ver $17 billion in revenue last year. Though Amazon makes much more in gross sales—over $100 billion—from its retail business, if you scrutinize its earnings reports, you’ll see that the majority of its profits come from AWS. Tech is where the money is, baby.

Launched in 2006, AWS has taken over vast swaths of the internet. My VPN winds up blocking over 23 million IP addresses controlled by Amazon, resulting in various unexpected casualties, from Motherboard and Fortune to the U.S. Government Accountability Office’s website. (Government agencies love AWS, which is likely why Amazon, soon to be a corporate Cerberus with three “headquarters,” chose Arlington, Virginia, in the D.C. suburbs, as one of them.) Many of the smartphone apps I rely on also stop working during the block…

Amazon has embedded itself so thoroughly into the infrastructure of modern life, and into the business models of so many companies, including its competitors, that it’s nearly impossible to avoid it.

The U.S. economy is becoming less and less of a free market every single day, and the tech giants are increasingly a big reason for this pernicious trend.

Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give Facebook honorable mention for being the creepy, dishonest, surveillance corporation masquerading as a platform that it is. In just the last 24 hours, we learned the following…

As disturbing as all of this is, I’m convinced we can turn it around. Much of this Orwellian world of gigantic tech surveillance corporations, and the governments that work with them, was created in the background while much of the public had no real understanding how their business models worked and the terrifying real world implications that come with ubiquitous surveillance for profit and social control. We are only slowly waking up from a long slumber and while many think it’s too late to turn back the clock, I say it’s never too late. Even for China, you never know what can happen. You can only abuse people for so long before they snap.

The truth of the matter is we have little choice. Technology is just a tool which can be used for good, evil or any spectrum in between. Society is leaning hard and fast toward the maliciousness path with most governments happy to encourage and partner with it.

Either we turn this thing around or we’ll be reduced to little more than swiping, liking, manipulated serfs on an oligarch’s digital plantation.  To leave such a legacy to our children and grandchildren is unconscionable.

Full article: Two Roads Diverged in a Digital Wood (Liberty Blitzkrieg)

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