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The Future Of The Internet's Here. And It's Creepy

Two new studies are offering a sneak peak into the future of the Internet: 24/7 digital surveillance of citizens is about to become affordable for repressive regimes worldwide. Do NOT text a friend about this.

In Gary Shteyngart's 2010 novel Super Sad True Love Story, ordinary Americans are glued to superpowered iPhone-like devices while authority figures monitor their every move. Two newly released research papers on the Internet's future, it seems, prove the author did a good job of predicting things. One Pew study has found that text messaging is growing more quickly than anyone has imagined, while a new Brookings paper is predicting cheap and total monitoring of all electronic communications by authoritarian governments in the next few years.

First, the dystopian future. John Villasenor of UCLA conducted research for the Brookings Institution that paints a depressing picture of where Internet monitoring is headed. In the paper, Recording Everything: Digital Storage As An Enabler Of Authoritarian Governments, Villasenor has uncovered convincing evidence that repressive regimes worldwide will soon be able to cheaply monitor all voice and data communications in their country. According to Villasenor, "For the first time ever, it will become technologically and financially feasible for authoritarian governments to record nearly everything that is said or done within their borders—every phone conversation, electronic message, social media interaction, the movements of nearly every person and vehicle, and video from every street corner."

The same technological advances that enable amazing consumer gadgets like iPhones also help fuel ominous government surveillance projects. Villasenor's research indicates that storage to record all phone calls made in Syria for a year currently costs $2.5 million—but, if current pricing trends continue, this will fall in 2016 to only $250,000. Rapidly falling storage costs also mean that Orwellesque video surveillance schemes will soon became extremely affordable. A pilot project by the Chinese municipality of Chongqing to blanket the city of 12 million with 500,000 video cameras (running, incidentally, on Cisco and HP software) currently costs $300 million in annual storage—but this price will drop to a much more practical $3 million by 2020.

According to the Brookings paper, rapidly falling data storage costs are being combined with massive innovations by repressive regimes in Internet monitoring and censorship—that are often aided and abetted by American firms. Along with Cisco and HP's involvement in Chinese citizen monitoring projects, marquee firms ranging from McAfee to Boeing have sold Internet monitoring software to Iran, Myanmar, and others. Villasenor expects a "coming era of ubiquitous surveillance in authoritarian countries" that will have big implications for U.S. foreign policy.

In less creepy news, a recently released paper from the Pew Research Center has found that text messaging is exploding in popularity in the third world. The study, titled Global Digital Communication, indicates that the spread of cheap mobile phones in Africa and Asia is profoundly changing the nature of communication. Text messaging is most common in Indonesia and Kenya (where 96% and 89% of mobile phone owners send SMS text messages, respectively) and 50% of mobile owners worldwide use their phones to take pictures or record videos.

Interestingly, the study found that people in lower-income nations who have online access use social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter at a much higher rate than their counterparts in Western Europe, Japan, and South Korea. American exceptionalists, however, will find disappointing news in the report: A higher percentage of Spaniards (96%) own mobile phones than Americans (85%), and a higher percentage of Israelis use social networking sites (53% vs. 50%).

[Image: Flickr user Mixer1, top: fss]

For more stories like this, follow @fastcompany on Twitter. Email Neal Ungerleider, the author of this article, here or find him on Twitter and Google+.

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  • Katerina Skotalova

    The BBC4 trilogy Black Mirror also offers a creepy view on the future of mankind dealing with dangers of massive use of interconnected devices. 
    Especially the third part 'The Entire History of You' seems very related to this article - it tells a story about 'what if we had devices recording all our memories'.

  • Jym Allyn

    While Authoritarian abuse of power, information, and technology will always happen (duh, welcome to Nazi Germany) your myopic perspective fails to realize that nature not only abhors a vacuum, but he/she/it also abhors a static situation (which is WHY evolution is "God's" mechanism for how the universe operates).

    To visualize how a hyper-technical society might operate under an Authoritarian government, rather than read "1984" you need to read Heinlein's "Friday" where the tools of technology are used as a means to operate a revolution.

  • JaySMillard

    While clearly big brother is watching here in the U.S., we can't really claim to be hiding.  If we are all aware our electronic communication can be monitored, we have to actually take responsibility for what we say and do in our electronic speech.  It is a brave new world.

  • Dyann Espinosa

    May be a great article but you lost me at:
    Two new studies are offering a sneak peak into the future of the Internet
    "sneak PEEK" please.
    One of my pet "PEAVES!"

  • steve jean

    May be a great reply but you lost me at:

    Dyann Espinosa.
    "DIANE" please.
    One of MY pet "PEAVES".

  • Stephen Marino

    Everything said, videoed, written is now digitally available...I'm not ok with who can and will use it against me.

  • chuck cory

     " Congress just eliminated habeas corpus, the oldest right in the Western world and the one which makes the others possible"?

  • Siobhan O'Flynn

    Read M.T. Anderson's Feed for a very convincing, riveting & depressing projection what happens when ubiquitous computing is internalized

  • Donald Berrian

    "The price of liberty is eternal vigilance" and Americans are sleeping or watching TV.  If the US doesn't turn into a dictatorship in the next 20 years, I will be very surprised.  Certainly the power of the government to monitor its citizens and "disappear" those who prove troublesome is fully in place.  Congress just eliminated habeas corpus, the oldest right in the Western world and the one which makes the others possible.  Free speech is useless if you can be sent to jail at the whim of the President or the military.  All that would need to finish the job is a real leader like Hitler to take charge.  Fortunately, there are none in the 2012 race.  I'm backing the one man who doesn't want the president's powers expanded. 

  • Star Jonestown


    Have fun in your bunker, Donald.  I'm sure it's full of bad porn and a Commodore 64.  

  • Sanyu Nagenda

    Blarg. Please forgive my typos down there. Corrections below:

    1.  I find it a little suspicious that you talk about this technology in
    regard to a "coming era of ubiquitous surveillance in authoritarian

    2. but that only contributes to how sinister our version of oppression is
    (pretending to be open/free while making all efforts not to be)

  • Sanyu Nagenda

    I find it a little suspicious that you talk about this technology in regard to "coming era of ubiquitous surveillance in authoritarian countries" as if a) that era has not already arrived and b) as if the US is not one of those countries.

    We might have a more "civilized" version of oppression here, but that only contributes to how sinister our version of oppression is (pretending to be open/free while making all efforts to be not be). The US is already using this technology against its own citizens and with the "liberal" Pres. Obama signing in the NDAA Martial Law it's pretty shameful you haven't mentioned it in your article.

  • Richard Presley

    Fred, you forget that we already have a Heimlich maneuver for information choking and that it exists in Google's (and Facebook's and Yahoo's and the US Defense Dept's. I'm sure) algorithms for executing searches. I'm not even in intelligence, but with surprisingly little effort, I can find a startling amount of information about nearly any topic or person I want to investigate. All repressive (and so-called democratic) regimes have to do is put search algorithms in place to filter out potentially damaging information from the innocuous. It isn't that Big Brother is watching us, it is that he is monitoring us and as alerted to watch us at the most opportune moments. Technology is already ahead of our ability to implement it effectively. 

  • Fred Nickols

    It has long been known that sociological change lags technological change.  That, of course, affords the opportunity to use technological change as a means of introducing sociological change.  Now that Big Brother is knocking at the door, I suspect that currently non-repressive regimes will become more so.  And, as with the Patriot Act, they will likely use external terrorist threats as an excuse.  Aha.  Perhaps there's a market in ways of disabling the GPS system in your cell phone/iPad/iPod/auto, and in apps for encrypting your voice calls and text messages.  The silver lining in all this is that information must be processed in order to result in action.  I suspect those repressive regimes - and those about to become more so - will choke on all that information/data.

  • nealu

    Author of the article here. My fear is that, as mass data collection becomes easier/cheaper, the tools to sift through and organize the data become more easily available as well. It's a strange situation... between a rising wave of government surveillance and the new ubiquity of corporate surveillance (see: Facebook), we're veering into uncharted waters.

  • atimoshenko

    1. Restore symmetry – make it impossible to watch others without revealing yourself/your actions to them.

    2. Do not restrict this power to the hands of a select few – since we cannot turn back the clock on the growing transparency of our technological tools, a situation in which everyone can watch everyone else is much better to a situation in which there are the watchers and the watched.

  • Richard Presley

    The first option is impractical from an intelligence standpoint. The second option, however, is already in place, albeit only haltingly implemented. Hackers and Crackers are already finding ways to monitor the monitors. The trouble is, dissemination of the information is not as easy as it would appear. It used to be that the press was our ally in curbing authoritarian excess. Nixon found this out the hard way that there is really no way he could stop Ellsberg from getting the word out through the press. However, with the fall of print outlets and the networks wanting to concentrate on fluff and nonsense like the Kardashians instead of hard news and investigative reporting (Frontline being the notable exception) there really is no one who can curb the government. Wikileaks can try, but even so, our hope appears to be the blogging world, social media, and the enraged Tweets of the masses. Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring both demonstrate the power of SMS to achieve at least some measure of success.

  • gregory lent

    it's fear .. and it's us doing it to ourselves, from a whole-system view .. we are slow to grow up, slow to release our habit of fear.