The Totalitarian State of IT

The marriage of Big Data and the Internet of Things is driving the so-called fourth industrial revolution. This brings us great gadgets, but also a lot of potential trouble. Let’s gaze into the crystal ball.

The fourth industrial revolution

Uber, AirBnb, and Tesla are just a few of the new disruptive companies that have stormed onto the market. These companies are the forerunners of what is known as the fourth industrial revolution. But what exactly does that mean?

Professor Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, describes it as follows.

The fourth industrial revolution is characterized by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres.

Basically, with the mass availability of cheap raw computing power and numerous connected devices, companies can change the world. Uber, for instance, isn’t much more than an app that connects people with cars to people who need cars. But it connects a lot of them. And take Tesla. It doesn’t just build cars, it turns them into internet-connected computers on wheels.

The upshot of technology like this is that we can make all the devices we use every day smarter. Phones, cars, watches, electricity meters, refrigerators, and so on. But that is just the beginning. We’ll soon be able to monitor our health with built-in chips, and print our household items using 3D printers.

So what’s the catch?

To power this fourth industrial revolution, we’re providing a growing amount of data to companies, and allowing a growing amount of devices into our lives.

When everybody plays nice, this works out well enough. Unfortunately, companies don’t always play nice, and neither do certain people and/or governments.

I’ve already done a post on why the Internet of Things is so dangerous, and what kind of damage hackers and the like can do.

Big Data has its own dangers. I recently read an article that scared the pants off me. The gist of it: right-wing billionaire uses big data to influence people and mold society his way. It sounds like tin-foil hat time, doesn’t? Unfortunately, these things are really happening. Another example: Facebook did experiments to see if they could influence people’s behavior through their platform. Big Data is just as dangerous as the Internet of Things.

We can make it even scarier and combine the two.

Step one: the all-seeing eye

Let’s assume some evil entity (a person, company or government) wants to take advantage of Big Data and the Internet of Things, and has the resources to do so.

What does our evil entity know in the age of the fourth industrial revolution? People are already putting half their lives on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. That’s a given, but it’s only half the story. We don’t put everything on Facebook, just the part of our lives that we want to make public. The rest is private… or is it?

Enter the Internet of Things. There’s probably a television in your living room, and possible one in your bedroom, your den, or in your children’s rooms. Modern televisions are often equipped with microphones and camera’s. Don’t have that? There’s always that game console with motion sensors and voice control. And you probably carry around your smartphone as well. And your smartwatch. Or your Fitbit. Maybe you have an Amazon Echo? Then there’s the smart car, the smart fridge, and your smart meter.  The future is even more devices on and in your body, measuring you 24/7. And all those devices connect to the cloud.

Let that sink in for a moment. In the near future, if we let the fourth industrial revolution play out unchanged, the cloud will contain detailed information about where we are, what we see and hear, and how our body responds to those things, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for the rest of our lives.

Step two: control

The fourth industrial revolution is pushing our whole lives into the cloud, but does that really matter? You’re not a criminal, are you? You have nothing to hide?

I recently read an article that had a great rebuttal for that argument: it’s not about having nothing to hide. It’s about an entity making decisions about you, based on information you have no control over.

It starts with things that seem reasonable, like more expensive car insurance when your smart car says you’re driving recklessly. Or increase health insurance for people who refuse to stop smoking. Then come more dangerous things, like only allowing loans if AI algorithms says your credit rating is high enough. Finally, all your life is weighed and you are pushed to change what isn’t acceptable to whoever designed the algorithms.

The above things influence people, but it’s very visible. Our evil entity will want to go more low-key. We’ve all heard about voter suppression recently. What if our evil entity messed with internet-connected thermostats a few days before the election, giving unwanted voters a cold. Or their smart cars might suddenly report a dire need for an oil change the day of the election. Or evil entity puts them on the ignore list for Uber for the day. Or slows down their pace makers to make them lethargic.

On a larger scale, you can influence people by feeding them the right amounts of ‘alternate facts’ to slowly change their views to match the desires of evil entity. Gaming Facebook and Twitter – like in the last US elections – is just the beginning. If you can also change Google and Bing rankings, and edit Wikipedia with fake statements and sources, it looks a lot more authentic. For the final blow, you can go for the devices. Your car suddenly wants to go around a part of the city because of non-existent ‘terrorist attacks’, like Bowling Green. Your fridge can report milk shortages because there’s been a problem with the Mexican supplier, even though there is none. Do you see where this is going?

Then there is the dark side. Ransomware on your PC is annoying, and could be career-ending, but imagine somebody ransoming your pacemaker? Or they can blackmail you with the footage from your bedroom television from that time you cheated on your wife – yep, a smart home could pick up on bedroom visitors that are not your family and automatically record and upload using the camera in the TV.

As you can see, there is quite the possibility to do damage and quite the money to be made in the fourth industrial revolution.

Step three: covert total domination

The damage an evil entity can do is quite large, but imagine a totalitarian government applying this to all facets of life. China, for example, is implementing a social credit system. This system will determine your credit ratings and who knows what. It takes your social standing and the standing of those close to you. They are also pushing for mandatory GPS in cars, and only allow government controlled software and internet connections.

This is quite insidious. Not only does it monitor you, it monitors those around you. By making social media relations weigh in, people will automatically start to ostracize those that are not following the path you as evil entity want. It’s like the Stasi in East-Germany, which employed over two-hundred thousand people to spy on the population. In this new age of IT, you can incentivize every citizen at once, using automated algorithms.

You can use cloud-based software to do all the things I described above to all the citizens of a country, all the time. A fully automated continuous array of measures to keep citizens in line with the government view. Opposition members automatically black-mailed, or even killed. Upstart writers identified before they can publish, and their work locked by ransomware. People showing the wrong sentiment denied job promotions and loans. And anybody associated with those people will sever their ties to avoid the same fate. And it can all be done in such a way that the people don’t even know it’s happening.

Conclusion

It all sounds like Brave New World meets 1984, doesn’t it? It doesn’t have to happen, though, and it might not. But the signs are there that it already is. If it isn’t a totalitarian government, it’s a cabal of big companies, led by possibly-shady high-net-worth individuals, or simply big business and crime syndicates.

In short, don’t trust your life to the Internet of Things or Big Data just yet.  Not until you can be sure it’s safe.

Author: Martin Stellinga

I’m a science fiction and fantasy writer from the Netherlands

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