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Opinion

September 12, 2017

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The end of the world as we know it

The end of the world as we know it

On the eve of the new millennium, at a New Year’s party, I recall the frenzied atmosphere in the countdown to the year 2000. Apocalyptic predictions for the turn of the century had littered the pages of newspapers and tabloids alike for weeks.

It was said global computer mainframes housing the World Wide Web, the satellites orbiting the Earth and even our personal computers would simultaneously malfunction at the very moment the minute hands struck twelve across the world. As a consequence, traffic systems would shut down, electricity grids would go cold, stock markets would crash, bank accounts would disappear, and mankind would find itself beset with a catastrophe of a hitherto unprecedented global scale, and one entirely of its own making. The world as we knew it, was about to end.

Disappointingly, however, the year 2000 arrived like a damp squib the next day. The world had not ended – computers, microchips and motors across the globe continued to buzz, click and whir with confidence, and aspirin and yoghurt were still all that were needed to rescue me from the pounding headache and the indigestion I had achieved in the aftermath of my new year revelling.

In the near two decades since, however, global investments in science and digital technology in particular have created a global information explosion. Coupled with the availability of ever more sophisticated, yet cheap, commercial and personal repositories of digital information together with revolutionary advances in manufacturing, they have engineered the arrival of what is now termed as the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Seventeen years into the 21st century we now stand at the threshold of a brave new world that promises to change the way we live, work, think and survive, through breathtaking advances in robotics, artificial intelligence, digital information, autonomous transport, machine learning, biotechnology and surveillance. While the developments in each of these fields merit consideration in depth, it is intriguing to examine the exciting offerings in digital surveillance and the consequent impact on global transparency.

Consider the following: private investments in commercial surveillance satellites, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, biometrics, social media analytics and cyber defences are burgeoning in response to market demand. In 2015 the sale of detailed high resolution satellite imagery, of objects no more than a foot long from above 400 miles from the ground, was approved by US regulators. According to ‘Foreign Affairs’ magazine, in competition with the satellites previously costing hundreds of millions of dollars, and which can only cover around five percent of the earth’s land mass, new entrants in the global market are designing miniature inexpensive satellites offering increased precision.

Planet Labs in the US intends to launch over 100 satellites in 2017 to cover the Earth’s entire land mass in medium resolution every day. Another company, Terra Bella, will collect both HD photographs and video clips from outer space. Black Sky Global in the US will launch a 60 satellite constellation to obtain images of the earth’s most populated areas and intends to sell this imagery at less than $100 each, while others will provide radar imaging irrespective of time and weather. By 2021 more than 600 commercial satellites will orbit and collect data from the earth.

To derive information from this avalanche of data, other private companies are focusing on big data and data analytics. Consider the massive social media content available online: data analytics firms such as Dataminr are running algorithms on Twitter to provide real time updates of business news and crises. In 2015, Dataminr alerted its clients five minutes after the first explosion of the Paris terrorist attacks. Similarly, data analysis of social media content will provide everything from predictions of investor sentiments and stock market performance to consumer preferences and the monitoring of events that will become breaking local or global news.

Another rapidly expanding industry is that of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles with a global commercial and military market set to triple in size in a decade, with both states and individuals providing the demand. High quality video and photographs can already be obtained from cameras mounted on the Chinese UAVs flooding Pakistan’s local markets for hobbyists.

All this portends the arrival of a new age of global transparency: both individuals and governments will now be able to engage in largely unfettered surveillance enabling them to collect intelligence on organisations and individuals. On the upshot, this means that more information will be available in the public domain, which will significantly reduce, if not altogether prevent, governments and organisations from exploiting the rights of the populace in their countries, and from remaining immune from public scrutiny. We can imagine more and more incidences of information leaks that continue to expose the wrong doings of elected governments, armies and dictators.

We can further hope that global satellite imaging may give us unique opportunities for fighting climate change, identifying untapped natural resources, predicting disasters and thus preventing major losses of life. Global conflicts may also be avoided as information sharing between traditional antagonists becomes more fluid, technological advancements necessitating the need for collaboration and dialogue.

On the downside, however, it must be pointed out that technology usually develops at a pace which outstrips the promulgation of laws and regulations that aim to govern and ring-fence its misuse. And often this happens because laws are enacted in response to deleterious effects on society. In the third world, even when such legislation is finally promulgated, our experience tells us that implementation is usually weak, as legal loopholes coupled with traditionally weak governance institutions provide more incentives to thwart the letter and spirit of the law. In the wrong hands the mass marketing and availability of surveillance technology may lead to an increase in the intensity and sophistication of terrorist attacks, as an example. Terrorists will possibly be able to plan attacks on unsuspecting physical targets with more precision, and may simultaneously utilise cyber warfare to render traditional surveillance and counter terrorism systems inept.

This is a post-truth world where major conflicts continue in traditional hotbeds of political crises like the Middle East, and where populism is being celebrated in the most dangerous fashion – as we witnessed in the last week with the chest-thumping jingoism of Donald Trump in response to the maniacal actions of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, and which is equally evident in the aggressive posturing of Putin’s Russia, not to mention Brexit and the exclusionary diatribes of leaders across Western Europe. One wonders if in such a world a culture of global surveillance is more likely to evolve into an Orwellian nightmare, breeding mistrust and acrimony, more than it counsels, peace and tolerance. While we can only proceed to vest our trust in the collective wisdom of mankind, any planning for the future must recognise that in many ways, this is certainly the end of the world as we know it.

 

The writer is a freelancecolumnist.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @kmushir

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