What are the most dangerous technologies of the surveillance age?

Privacy news
4 mins
A warning sign with a skull and crossbones and the word "Tech".

Technology such as encryption, VPNs, and Tor can help us maintain and defend our privacy online.

But technology can also work in the opposite direction, helping the spooks learn about our private lives and behavior, which makes it difficult for individuals to develop personalities freely from fear and control.

But which technologies should we be afraid about most, and why? And what can help us protect ourselves from these trends?

1. Facial recognition systems

There are already cameras everywhere, and while it’s undeniably entertaining to watch bloopers from everyday life on YouTube, it is creepy to know everything we do in public life is potentially made available to the world to consume.

With advanced technology, it will soon be possible to not only record all our public life but also analyze it in almost real time. While facial recognition is far from perfect, it already allows a computer to match a person even if glasses or hats obscure parts of their face.

Quite likely, facial recognition software will become more accurate than humans—especially when scaled to databases the size of a city’s voters registry, national passports, or even that of Facebook.

With advanced face recognition software, a state might be able to find out with high accuracy where a person is at all times, who they are with, and what they are currently doing.

It’s pretty hard to protect against facial recognition. The most effective tools stand out considerably to the human eye, and they only really work if a large number of people use them. If only a few people use tricks to deceive cameras, it will be quite easy to work out who they are.

For now, items that fool the cameras are mainly a sign of (much needed) protest and objection to the automatization of the police state.

2. Ride-sharing apps

Your car is your property, and there are limits to what governments can do with it. They cannot deny you access to it, seize it, or search it without good reason.

In your car, you also decide where to go, and what hardware and software to install.

However, when you rent a car or hop into somebody’s rideshare, you are not protected by these same provisions. On top of that, the app you use to hail the ride knows where you are at all times and will record this data.

The app even knows where you are going before you get there and, in some cases, can even predict your commuting behavior (this risk is also endemic to navigation systems). All of this data is available to advertisers and governments.

At present, it’s still relatively easy to avoid ride-sharing if your hometown has decent public transportation or you can afford a car.

3. Electronic money

Carrying change in our pockets is inconvenient. Finding an ATM nearby can cost money and take time. Most of us have access to electronic payment methods like credit cards, Google Pay, Wechat Pay or Venmo.

But relying on these systems can be dangerous. Not only are all your transactions analyzed and sold to advertisers, but they are also available to your government. Tourists crossing the U.S. border from the north can be refused entry, and possibly even face jail time, because they purchased marijuana legally in Canada.

Electronic money can not only be used to surveil and prosecute you, but also to deny you access to services only available with credit cards, such as online purchases or card-only shops.

If we do end up eradicating cash, as we already have for expensive goods, we are making it easy to marginalize people without access further.

To avoid government snooping, use cash as much as you can, and Bitcoin whenever you shop online.

4. Predictive policing

Predictive policing has inspired many science fiction stories, most famously Philip K Dick’s The Minority Report.

Unlike in The Minority Report, we cannot rely on psychic mutants to see future crime, but instead, we have to rely on existing crime databases, most of which carry a fair amount of prejudice and bias.

Predictive policing amplifies this bias, meaning some crime goes less punished, while citizens in crime-ridden areas are inconvenienced through concentrated law enforcement action, similar to that of racial profiling at airports.

It may seem far-fetched, but predictive policing is already in trial stage at multiple locations around the world—most notably through U.S. military contractor Palantir in New Orleans.

All of the above is why we should all demand ethical technology

It is the responsibility of all of us to use and further ethical technology while rejecting technology that can be used against us.

Wear face covers where you can, even if it is just as a protest. Make use of your own car or even better, public transportation, and pay with cash and Bitcoin wherever possible.

Be vigilant against attempts in your community against any policies that endanger the equality of all and the erosion of your rights.

Lexie is the blog's resident tech expert and gets excited about empowerment through technology, space travel, and pancakes with blueberries.