- THE SATURDAY ESSAY
- Updated April 19, 2013, 2:59 p.m. ET
Saturday, April 20, 2013
The Dark Side of the Digital Revolution By ERIC SCHMIDT and JARED COHEN (Google and north Korea)
This is something everyone who studies unconventional warfare needs to read: e.g., a way to contribute to being able to coerce, disrupt or overthrow a government or occupying power. I criticized Mr. Schmidt for his visit to north Korea but between this essay and his daughter's excellent essay I am glad they went though I now wish it had been on their own and not with Governor Richardson. (Had they gone on their own they probably would have met Kim Jong-Un before Dennis Rodman.)
The Dark Side of the Digital Revolution
Google's Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, fresh from a visit to North Korea in January, on why the Internet is far from an unalloyed good to the citizens of dictatorships around the world.
Google Chairman Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, director of Google Ideas, talk with WSJ's John Bussey about what they hoped to accomplish from a visit to North Korea, and their observations about the country's technological potential and its likelihood of embracing the Internet. Photo: Getty Images
How do you explain to people that they are a YouTube sensation, when they have never heard of YouTube or the Internet? That's a question we faced during our January visit to North Korea, when we attempted to engage with the Pyongyang traffic police. You may have seen videos on the Web of the capital city's "traffic cops," whose ballerina-like street rituals, featured in government propaganda videos, have made them famous online. The men and women themselves, however—like most North Koreans—have never seen a Web page, used a desktop computer, or held a tablet or smartphone. They have never even heard of Google (or Bing, for that matter).
Even the idea of the Internet has not yet permeated the public's consciousness in North Korea. When foreigners visit, the government stages Internet browsing sessions by having "students" look at pre-downloaded and preapproved content, spending hours (as they did when we were there) scrolling up and down their screens in totalitarian unison. We ended up trying to describe the Internet to North Koreans we met in terms of its values: free expression, freedom of assembly, critical thinking, meritocracy. These are uncomfortable ideas in a society where the "Respected Leader" is supposedly the source of all information and where the penalty for defying him is the persecution of you and your family for three generations.
North Korea is at the beginning of a cat-and-mouse game that's playing out all around the world between repressive regimes and their people. In most of the world, the spread of connectivity has transformed people's expectations of their governments. North Korea is one of the last holdouts. Until only a few years ago, the price for being caught there with an unauthorized cellphone was the death penalty. Cellphones are now more common in North Korea since the government decided to allow one million citizens to have them; and in parts of the country near the border, the Internet is sometimes within reach as citizens can sometimes catch a signal from China. None of this will transform the country overnight, but one thing is certain: Though it is possible to curb and monitor technology, once it is available, even the most repressive regimes are unable to put it back in the box.
Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen preview their essay in Saturday's Wall Street Journal on their observations during a recent trip to North Korea. In this excerpt from an interview with WSJ's John Bussey, they discuss whether the country can allow some access to the Internet.
What does this mean for governments and would-be revolutionaries? While technology has great potential to bring about change, there is a dark side to the digital revolution that is too often ignored. There is a turbulent transition ahead for autocratic regimes as more of their citizens come online, but technology doesn't just help the good guys pushing for democratic reform—it can also provide powerful new tools for dictators to suppress dissent.
Fifty-seven percent of the world's population still lives under some sort of autocratic regime. In the span of a decade, the world's autocracies will go from having a minority of their citizens online to a majority. From Tehran to Beijing, autocrats are building the technology and training the personnel to suppress democratic dissent, often with the help of Western companies.
Of course, this is no easy task—and it isn't cheap. The world's autocrats will have to spend a great deal of money to build systems capable of monitoring and containing dissident energy. They will need cell towers and servers, large data centers, specialized software, legions of trained personnel and reliable supplies of basic resources like electricity and Internet connectivity. Once such an infrastructure is in place, repressive regimes then will need supercomputers to manage the glut of information.
Despite the expense, everything a regime would need to build an incredibly intimidating digital police state—including software that facilitates data mining and real-time monitoring of citizens—is commercially available right now. What's more, once one regime builds its surveillance state, it will share what it has learned with others. We know that autocratic governments share information, governance strategies and military hardware, and it's only logical that the configuration that one state designs (if it works) will proliferate among its allies and assorted others. Companies that sell data-mining software, surveillance cameras and other products will flaunt their work with one government to attract new business. It's the digital analog to arms sales, and like arms sales, it will not be cheap. Autocracies rich in national resources—oil, gas, minerals—will be able to afford it. Poorer dictatorships might be unable to sustain the state of the art and find themselves reliant on ideologically sympathetic patrons.
And don't think that the data being collected by autocracies is limited to Facebook posts or Twitter comments. The most important data they will collect in the future is biometric information, which can be used to identify individuals through their unique physical and biological attributes. Fingerprints, photographs and DNA testing are all familiar biometric data types today. Indeed, future visitors to repressive countries might be surprised to find that airport security requires not just a customs form and passport check, but also a voice scan. In the future, software for voice and facial recognition will surpass all the current biometric tests in terms of accuracy and ease of use.
Today's facial-recognition systems use a camera to zoom in on an individual's eyes, mouth and nose, and extract a "feature vector," a set of numbers that describes key aspects of the image, such as the precise distance between the eyes. (Remember, in the end, digital images are just numbers.) Those numbers can be fed back into a large database of faces in search of a match. The accuracy of this software is limited today (by, among other things, pictures shot in profile), but the progress in this field is remarkable. A team at Carnegie Mellon demonstrated in a 2011 study that the combination of "off-the-shelf" facial recognition software and publicly available online data (such as social-network profiles) can match a large number of faces very quickly. With cloud computing, it takes just seconds to compare millions of faces. The accuracy improves with people who have many pictures of themselves available online—which, in the age of Facebook, is practically everyone.
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