Concerns about a rising far-right during the COVID-19 pandemic have been expressed in various media outlets. While internet extremism is concerning, many of our technocratic leaders have escaped scrutiny and they are the ones with the power to make decisions. Most people have been fairly eager to make sacrifices for the common good so that we can get through this with as little suffering as possible. Unfortunately, history shows us that changes made in the wake of defining moments of history tend to stay for the long-term. People take advantage of crises for their own benefit so it is necessary to be cautious of what changes we are willing to accept.
In an article for The Times, which presents references to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four as cliché, David Cameron’s former speech writer Clare Foges expresses her regret that Western nations have been somewhat more restrained in the adoption of surveillance technologies than Hong Kong (with its mandatory wristbands), Taiwan (with its ‘electronic fence’ phone tracking system, where those in isolation are visited by the authorities if they turn off their phone), and South Korea (which pools data from credit cards, mobile phones, and CCTV cameras to track its citizens’ every move). She warns against being fooled by “the civil liberties lobby” into thinking that such measures might constitute an infringement on people’s privacy or an overstep on the part of the government in its alliance with corporations. Edward Snowden, a National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower who was forced to leave his home country in order to avoid harsh prosecution by the Barack Obama administration, is dismissed as the “patron saint of the paranoid.”
Even concerns expressed about the announced British tacking app by the former head of the British spy agency, MI5, are considered “out of date” because people commonly provide their data anyway by using technology owned by big corporations. Foges is right to note that usage of the internet, once considered a great leveller, now means selling yourself to corporations. Rather than using this fact as a jumping off point to criticize surveillance capitalism, she uses it as a justification for a kind of authoritarian digital technocracy. Given the existence of corporate data hiving, Foges argues it would be “nonsensical” for “arch civil libertarians” to convince us to not also have the state data hive. The reality is, however, that the state and corporations work together to meddle in people’s lives and move us towards a techno-dystopia.
The Donald Trump presidency saw the creation of a little-known government agency, the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence (NSCAI), in 2018. The NSCAI is chaired by Eric Schmitt, former CEO of Google’s parent company Alphabet, which is vice-chaired by former deputy secretary of defence Robert O. Work, who is also the former CEO of the Center for a New American Security, a think-tank now led by John McCain’s former foreign policy advisor and Joe Biden’s former deputy national security advisor. The NSCAI’s commissioners also include the first CEO of In-Q-Tel, the venture capitalist arm of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the current CEO of In-Q-Tel, the CEO of Oracle, the CEO of Amazon Web Services, a Microsoft executive, and representatives from Google and the Pentagon. The NSCAI is essentiality the military, the intelligence community, and Silicon Valley coming together to plan what the United States needs to do in order to avoid losing its technological advantage over China in terms of artificial intelligence (AI), as we move towards the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ created by AI.
Through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) acquired a May 2019 NSCAI presentation entitled “Chinese Tech Landscape Overview.” The presentation discusses where China has an advantage and how the United States can overcome that advantage. The United States is leading in the creation of AI technologies but it is lagging behind China in the adoption stage. The NSCAI worries that if the United States does not catch up in the adoption stage, China will dominate AI for many decades as they export their technology around the world, while the United States does not. Silicon Valley’s bottom lines will be hurt forever while the Pentagon and the CIA will lose their technological advantage over Chinese military and intelligence. Such concerns have long been voiced, which is why the NSCAI was created and why there are joint military-intelligence centres. A lot of what the NSCAI document says needs to be done to stop this is happening right now thanks to the current COVID-19 crisis. A plan to reshape the economy existed before this pandemic to combat the threat of Chinese market dominance in AI as the United States’ ability to develop and implement technology is necessary to keep an edge on China in national defence, security, and industry.
In September 2000, the Project for the New American Century released a report which suggested a “catastrophic and catalyzing event – like a new Pearl Harbor” was necessary for neoconservatives to achieve their goal of promoting American empire. One year later, the fall of the World Trade Center provided this opportunity. Three days later, Congress voted to authorize the president to use military force against “nations, organization, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001.” Barbara Lee was the single member of Congress in either chamber to vote against the open-ended law. Political leaders were immediately beating the drums of war. The Defense Department’s Office of Special Plans, in conjunction with a secret Pentagon unit, juxtaposed selective information to suggest a connection between Saddam Hussein, al-Qaeda, and weapons of mass destruction to justify the invasion of Iraq to the American public, when in fact such a connection was unlikely. Two decades later, we can recognize that regime-change wars have left military families and entire countries economically divided. 9/11 has also permanently changed how we go about our lives. We have given up much privacy and freedom in exchange for desired security. It is not unfathomable to believe the events could have been capitalized on to achieve foreign policy goals, benefit arms and oil companies, and justify the expansion of the surveillance state. Likewise, though believing the Coronavirus is a “plandemic” seems far fetched, we can nonetheless acknowledge how global technocrats are exploiting it to erode our civil liberties and support big technology capitalists.
The FOIA document identifies structural obstacles in American society and the economy that account for America’s lag in adopting AI technology in comparison to China. China does not have American ‘legacy systems’ – that is, cultural norms such as individual car ownership, being able to see a human doctor in person, privacy laws, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval, and so on. In China, there are not enough doctors for the entire population so that has caused China to adopt AI medicine platforms faster than the United States. According to the NSCAI, the American ‘legacy system’ of seeing a doctor in person is what needs to change for the United States to keep up with China in technological development and support Silicon Valley. The NSCAI would naturally applaud conditions that would incentivize the development of AI technology and normalize this new culture.
We should be weary of opportunists. Crisis is a time to consider the common good and look past our individual self-interest. It is tempting to submit to the ‘experts’ and accept their instructions, no matter how incoherent. However, we must consider who these experts are and what their motivations are. 9/11 changed the world forever. The internet has ceased to be a place where people have free and equal access to information. Instead, it has become clear that it is a place where our information is taken from us at the cost of our use. Security measures for travel are not going to be removed. Once something is built in a ‘crisis,’ it is not unbuilt by our political and economic leaders because they decide what a ‘crisis’ is, what is ‘necessary,’ and who the ‘expert’ technocrats are. While it might be possible to get used to some of the new conditions and regulations we face today, the idea that we could be facing an Orwellian erosion of ‘civil liberties’—as drastic as this might appear—should at least be given consideration for preventative purposes. We must remain cognizant of the fact that returning to our prior lifestyle could be rendered more difficult by global technocrats and certain capitalists if too much power and control is blindly granted to them.
Patrick T. Kennedy is an MA student in political theory at Carleton University with an interest in the history of ideas and the development and intellectual relationship between modern political philosophies.
Banner image by Markus Spiske, courtesy of Unsplash.
- Kevin Budning, “Far-right extremists are taking advantage of COVID-19,” iAffairs, April 14, 2020. https://iaffairscanada.com/2020/far-right-extremists-are-taking-advantage-of-covid-19/
- Clare Foges, “We need Big Brother to beat this virus,” The Times, April 20, 2020. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/comment/we-need-big-brother-to-beat-this-virus-5b0njl68r.
- National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, “Chinese Tech Landscape Overview,” May 2019, https://epic.org/foia/epic-v-ai-commission/EPIC-19-09-11-NSCAI-FOIA-20200331-3rd-Production-pt9.pdf.
- Project for a New American Century, “Creating Tommorow’s Dominante Force,” in Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategy, Forces and Resources For a New Century, September 2000. https://web.archive.org/web/20130817122719/http://www.newamericancentury.org/RebuildingAmericasDefenses.pdf
- Jason Vest and Robert Dreyfuss, “The Lie Factory,” Mother Jones, January/February 2004. https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2004/01/lie-factory/.