Google chairman and former chief executive Eric Schmidt recently embarked on a highly publicized, and criticized, trip to North Korea. The executive’s visit to one of the world’s most unplugged nations left an everlasting impression on him. Schmidt explained in an article published by The Wall Street Journal that it isn’t possible to have a modern society without access to the Internet, noting that every country, except North Korea, has embraced the Internet in some form. The Internet brings freedom; freedom of speech, freedom of information and in some cases, as we have seen with the Arab Spring, revolution. Schmidt warned, however, that there is also a dark side to the digital revolution.
The Internet freedom advocate explained that countries, including those under strong dictatorships, will no longer be able to dance around the Internet and will be forced to embrace it. That doesn’t mean citizens will see the same Internet as those in the United States and Europe, though.
Governments will spend millions of dollars to build systems capable of monitoring and containing counter ideologies. Equipment will include a vast array of cell towers, servers, large data centers, specialized software, trained personnel and a reliable supply of electricity and Internet connectivity. Repressive regimes will also need a fleet of supercomputers that can manage the sea of information.
The end result is something straight out of George Orwell’s 1984.
Schmidt notes that oil-rich nations will have no problem building these intimidating digital police states that are capable of monitoring their citizens’ every move, however poorer dictatorships could crumble under such a task.
Advancements in biometric information such as voice and facial recognition software, which can be used to identify individuals through their unique physical and biological attributes, will make tracking individuals easier than ever. Schmidt believes that governments will attempt to index these biometric signatures to physically and digitally track its citizens’ every move.
“That’s why we need to fight hard not just for our own privacy and security, but also for those who are not equipped to do so themselves,” he said. “We can regulate biometric data at home in democratic countries, which helps. But for newly connected citizens up against robust digital dictatorships, they will need information and tools to protect themselves — which democracies and nongovernmental groups will need to help provide.”
Schmidt notes that while dictators will have technologies capable of creating digital police and surveillance states, they will never completely succeed once the Internet has arrived.
“Dissidents will build tunnels out and bridges across. Citizens will have more ways to fight back than ever before — some of them anonymous, some courageously public,” Schmidt wrote, adding that “the digital future can be bright indeed, despite its dark side.”