The unexpected turn: from the democratic Internet to the Panopticon

In the last ten years ICTs (information and communication technologies) have been increasingly used by militaries both to develop new weapons and to improve communication and propaganda campaigns. So much so that military often refers to ‘information’ as the fifth dimension of warfare in addition to land, sea, air and space. Given this scenario does not surprise that the Pentagon would invest part of its resources to develop a new program called Social Media in Strategic Communication (SMISC) allegedly to ‘to get better at both detecting and conducting propaganda campaigns on social media’ as reported a few days ago on Wired (http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2011/07/darpa-wants-social-media-sensor-for-propaganda-ops/on ).

The program has two main functions, it will support the military in their propaganda and it will allows for identifying the “formation, development and spread of ideas and concepts (memes)” in social groups. Namely, the program will be able to spot on the web rumours or emerging themes, figure out whether such themes are randomly coming up or are the results of a propaganda operation by ‘adversary’ individuals or group. To any one even also slightly concerned with ethical problems all this rings more than one bell.

SMISC is one more surveillance tool empowered by ICTs. We all know that the information that we put on the web, on social networks or on websites, even our queries on search engines, is mined and analysed for second purposes. But it becomes more scaring when the analysis is done by government agencies, as in this case the Internet becomes a tool for surveillance. A surveillance, which may go far behind the one we may be already accustomed to. The unexpected turn is that the Internet, which has been for long time considered a ‘democratic place’, where anyone could express his/her thoughts and act more or less freely, could become the next Panopticon and provide the tool for monitoring both a wide range of information, from the newspaper one reads in the morning to one’s political commitment, and a vast amount of people, virtually all the web users.

This can have serious consequences. Consider the case of the recent riots and revolutions in middle East. In most cases, the Internet was the media through which people could talk about the political situation of their countries, organise protests and also describe their conditions to other people all over the world. What would have happened if middle East government could have spot the protest movements in their early days? Until now, governments, like the Egyptian one, have shut down the web in their countries to limit the circulation of information about what was happening; but the development of SMISC shows that there is a further step that could be soon taken, that is the proactive use of the Internet by governments for surveillance purposes. In this case, as the technologies for data mining evolves, the Internet may represent the most powerful surveillance/intelligence tool developed so far. If so, it seems that it is time to start worry about the rights of the Internet users and to find out ways of protecting them.

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