A myriad of emerging technologies offer users new ways to interact with the world around them. Live streaming gave million around the globe an “on the ground view” of the Ukrainian revolution and the Arab Spring. NFC technology allow property owners to grant selective access to our dwellings and vehicles with the tap of a card. Emerging smart firearms prevent unauthorized users from pulling the trigger. However, the widespread adoption of these technologies is hamstrung by state involvement in the direction of applied sciences within the United States.
Government authorities often insert digital backdoors into otherwise secure software, or refrain from publicizing security flaws in widely used applications, claiming that such actions are necessary for the preservation of national security. Far from safeguarding the nation, these actions undermine international faith in American products while leaving American firms open to cyber-attacks by information thieves and foreign governments. The NSA’s surreptitious bugging of American made Cisco routers, and Germany’s recent decision to end their contract with Verizon, citing security concerns, serve as a grave examples of the danger of state meddling the in development and use of private technological innovation.
Even more problematic are the actions taken by firms in order to serve the security state. Most firms are willing to abandon any commitment to individual rights when they are threatened with legal action, or risk losing lucrative government contracts. When the government acts as a consumer within the tech market, it essentially uses a concentrated pool of looted tax dollars to shift the direction to technological innovation towards state interests and away from genuine consumer wants. The state demand for military and police drones, combined with regulatory barriers to the commercial use of civilian drones effectually incentivizes military drone development over the creation of drones for pacific purposes. While most Americans are more concerned with quickly receiving their Seamless order than they are with the government’s ability to put “warheads on foreheads” in Yemen, this preference is not reflected in the current technological development paradigm. The mighty engine of technological innovation is thus warped and directed toward distinctly illiberal ends.
Apple now holds patents for technology which would allow police forces to disable cellphone cameras during times of civil unrest, and weapons maker TrackingPoint has recently filed patents for devices which would disable even legally owned firearms in “gun-free” zones. How would the American Revolution, or the 1946 Battle of Athens, in which armed citizens halted a corrupt takeover of their local government, have ended, had the state held the power to turn off privately owned firearms? How many incidents of police abuse would go unreported and unpunished if officers could disable the cellphone cameras of bystanders?
These state-serving actions undermine both public trust in useful technology, and capital driven, consumer serving technological development. The existence of the state as a major consumer of technology has the capacity to essentially poison the well of innovation.
Some NFC users have even taken to surgically installing NFC chips and RFID tags in their bodies. This allows the ability to interact with the locks on their doors and ignitions of their cars with a simple touch. In the next few years, it is entirely plausible that our gym access cards, car keys, and debit cards will be able to be carried literally inside the palm of your hand. While these are fantastic developments, with the capability to make millions of lives easier, the current tendency of tech firms to submit to any and all state demands would make me nervous about putting an NFC lock on my door. I would be nervous that, instead of getting a warrant to enter my home, the police would simply be able to request access from my lock-provider, as they have with billions of private communications held by meekly compliant ISPs.
Open sourced, privacy centric, creations like Darkwallet allow users to transact anonymously with Bitcoins, but the adoption of this technology by everyday consumers is predicated upon a corporate commitment to liberalism. Unfortunately, and quite rationally, most consumers value ease of use over security, and are met with little incentive to keep their financial activity private. If the state were to more regularly and publically abuse its financial data collection abilities, engaging in Cyprus-esque capital asset seizures, there would be more demand for these sorts of financial privacy tools. Unfortunately, we are rapidly heading toward a future in which there will be little escape from the state information dragnet. While Google wallet and Google glass allow users to send money to one another with voice commands, these transactions are remarkably unsecure and susceptible to government surveillance.
As we move further into an era dominated by information technology, we must remain aware of the need for a corporate commitment to liberalism and individual rights. With effective liberal governance, our technological advances will allow us to embrace the very best of ourselves and our capacity for creation. Without such a commitment, we may find ourselves living in a Panopticon of our own making. My generation has witnessed the rise of the greatest human knowledge sharing network ever known, we must use it responsibly.