The Authorities Don’t Need A.I. When Your Neighbors Will Narc on You

MEANS OF CONTROL: How the Hidden Alliance of Tech and Government Is Creating a New American Surveillance State, by Byron Tau

THE SENTINEL STATE: Surveillance and the Survival of Dictatorship in China, by Minxin Pei

In 1975, the French philosopher Michel Foucault published “Surveiller et Punir” “To Surveil and Punish” — a book popularly translated into English as “Discipline and Punish,” about how societies keep their populations in line with minimal violence. At the center of his argument lay the panopticon, a prison designed by the 18th-century political reformer Jeremy Bentham, in which every inmate’s cell door faces a guard tower whose windows are opaque.

Prisoners living under these towers never know whether the guards are looking at them, but they have to assume that they are being watched. This setup, Foucault explained, is a powerful metaphor for modern civilization: Our lives are circumscribed by a fear that invisible authorities have us in their sights.

Two new books about state surveillance in the 21st century, one focused on China and the other on the United States, make it clear that Foucault was right.

In China, as Minxin Pei explains in “The Sentinel State,” a centralized Communist government uses new tech to extend a centuries-old system of bureaucracy that rewards intelligence gleaned from informants and spies. And in the United States, Byron Tau’s “Means of Control” documents how a federal democracy formed shady alliances with private companies to collect data on its citizens. The result is a terrifying form of convergent social evolution: Two great nations, locked in an escalating conflict on the world stage, have taken radically different paths to reach eerily similar systems of surveillance at home.

Over the past decade, the media has been filled with stories about the ways American phones and computers give off a thick exhaust of information about the people who own them — where they’ve been, whom they know and what they believe. As Tau notes, even our car tires send out radio signals “and anybody with an antenna can listen in.” Modern tires are built this way to let your car’s onboard systems know when air pressure is low. But if someone has access to data from radio sensors along the roads, they can see your tires cruise by and get an idea of where you are at any given moment.

Tau suggests that the issue here isn’t really a technical one. Instead, it’s the questionable financial incentives and inadequate civil protections that have allowed the government to use corporate data to keep Americans under surveillance. Intelligence agencies are not generally permitted to engage in domestic spying, but the law is vague on whether they can buy “publicly available information” from companies like Otonomo, which sells “traffic data” from cities, or UberMedia and Venntel, which sell “consumer data” from internet advertising exchanges that supply ads to thousands of apps.

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