23rd December 2011
By Neal Ungerleider – fastcompany.com
Two new studies are offering a sneak peak into the future of the Internet: 24/7 digital surveillance of citizens is about to become affordable for repressive regimes worldwide. Do NOT text a friend about this.
In Gary Shteyngart’s 2010 novel Super Sad True Love Story, ordinary Americans are glued to superpowered iPhone-like devices while authority figures monitor their every move. Two newly released research papers on the Internet’s future, it seems, prove the author did a good job of predicting things. One Pew study has found that text messaging is growing more quickly than anyone has imagined, while a new Brookings paper is predicting cheap and total monitoring of all electronic communications by authoritarian governments in the next few years.
First, the dystopian future. John Villasenor of UCLA conducted research for the Brookings Institution that paints a depressing picture of where Internet monitoring is headed. In the paper, Recording Everything: Digital Storage As An Enabler Of Authoritarian Governments, Villasenor has uncovered convincing evidence that repressive regimes worldwide will soon be able to cheaply monitor all voice and data communications in their country. According to Villasenor, “For the first time ever, it will become technologically and financially feasible for authoritarian governments to record nearly everything that is said or done within their borders–every phone conversation, electronic message, social media interaction, the movements of nearly every person and vehicle, and video from every street corner.”
The same technological advances that enable amazing consumer gadgets like iPhones also help fuel ominous government surveillance projects. Villasenor’s research indicates that storage to record all phone calls made in Syria for a year currently costs $2.5 million–but, if current pricing trends continue, this will fall in 2016 to only $250,000. Rapidly falling storage costs also mean that Orwellesque video surveillance schemes will soon became extremely affordable. A pilot project by the Chinese municipality of Chongqing to blanket the city of 12 million with 500,000 video cameras (running, incidentally, on Cisco and HP software) currently costs $300 million in annual storage–but this price will drop to a much more practical $3 million by 2020.
According to the Brookings paper, rapidly falling data storage costs are being combined with massive innovations by repressive regimes in Internet monitoring and censorship–that are often aided and abetted by American firms. Along with Cisco and HP’s involvement in Chinese citizen monitoring projects, marquee firms ranging from McAfee to Boeing have sold Internet monitoring software to Iran, Myanmar, and others. Villasenor expects a “coming era of ubiquitous surveillance in authoritarian countries” that will have big implications for U.S. foreign policy.
In less creepy news, a recently released paper from the Pew Research Center has found that text messaging is exploding in popularity in the third world. The study, titled Global Digital Communication, indicates that the spread of cheap mobile phones in Africa and Asia is profoundly changing the nature of communication. Text messaging is most common in Indonesia and Kenya (where 96% and 89% of mobile phone owners send SMS text messages, respectively) and 50% of mobile owners worldwide use their phones to take pictures or record videos.
Interestingly, the study found that people in lower-income nations who have online access use social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter at a much higher rate than their counterparts in Western Europe, Japan, and South Korea. American exceptionalists, however, will find disappointing news in the report: A higher percentage of Spaniards (96%) own mobile phones than Americans (85%), and a higher percentage of Israelis use social networking sites (53% vs. 50%).
For more stories like this, follow @fastcompany on Twitter. Email Neal Ungerleider, the author of this article, here or find him on Twitter and Google+.