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This is Digital McCarthyism

Far from being liberated by these technologies, we have been plunged back into the worst abuses of surveillance and privacy violation.

The notion that we’re getting somewhere, making progress, is remarkably durable. It survives wars, financial collapse, riots, scandals, stagnating wages, and climate change (to name a few). Though techno-futurists are also fond of AI apocalypse scenarios, where artificial intelligence somehow “comes alive,” or at any rate uses its superior intelligence to make an autonomous decision to wipe out humanity, much more ink has been spilled this century prognosticating indomitable technical progress, which somehow stands in for human progress generally.

But sanguine belief in progress is belied by the actual events of the twenty-first century. Computers have gotten faster and AI more powerful, but digital technology has also been used to spread misinformation, make deep fakes, and conduct relentless cyberwarfare. Financial markets don’t seem any more secure given the widespread adoption of “AI based” risk models and trading strategies. And Americans generally don’t feel their information is secure, and worry that they’re being monitored and tracked. As a 2015 Pew Research Center survey concluded, “a cloud of personal ‘data insecurity’… now looms over many Americans’ daily decisions and activities.” (Cool. It’s just a looming cloud of insecurity. Nothing worrisome.)

I’d bet the surveillance problem in the US and for that matter the free world is likely worse than the already lachrymose in the Pew survey. We don’t seem to care as much, either, as if the constant drumbeat of data capture, monitoring, and tracking is now accepted as part of the modern story. We’re remarkably phlegmatic given the stakes. We seem to care less and less that we’re living through an age of Digital McCarthyism. We seem to care less and less that we’ve returned to a kind of McCarthyism, far from riding a twenty-first century rocket ship of progress.

Stalled progress in the twenty-first century is further underscored by ongoing problems with corporate and government surveillance, with targeted and, more often, bulk capture of volumes of our digital data stored in centralized data servers, misleadingly called “the cloud.” Harvard Business School emerita Shoshana Zuboff — among others — has exposed the surveillance model of large tech companies, like Google and Facebook, in her 2018 The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (scholars disagree about the “capitalism” part, but rarely about the “surveillance” part).

Edward Snowden and the Extent of Digital Surveillance

Other watershed events, like Edward Snowden’s leak of top-secret NSA files, have exposed the extent of surveillance in today’s spy and investigation agencies. Surveillance is an obvious threat to functioning democratic societies, and like so many other unanticipated consequences in the twenty-first century, its dangers were evident decades ago. The story of the twenty-first century so far is, among other undesirables, a record of Digital McCarthyism.

In the early ’50s, America’s leaders launched a prolonged campaign of “public service announcements” warning the public about the subversive influence of communism in their lives. Fearmongering cusped in the early 1950s, when right-wing senator Joseph McCarthy instigated a series of highly publicized probes of the US government, including the State Department, White House, Treasury, and even the US military. McCarthy’s largely groundless “investigations” turbocharged an already paranoid J. Edgar Hoover, the long-time FBI director notorious for indiscriminately wiretapping and spying on Americans.

Hoover’s FBI had disastrous effects on privacy, perpetrating abuses that many critics insist are happening again today. In his 2014 book No Place to Hide, constitutional lawyer and journalist Glenn Greenwald examined thousands of top-secret NSA files released by Snowden. The book documents the government’s latest surveillance machine, now powered by data centers, AI, and the web. His searing indictment of the actions and policies of spy agencies like the NSA and FBI, as well as rubberstamping by FISA courts, made clear the scope of privacy violations and privacy-related “mistakes” — including especially as related to American citizens.

Tapping Phones, Violating Privacy

In the 2000s, the NSA tapped Verizon to scoop vast quantities of phone records, which often included American citizens — whenever they called someone overseas. Big Tech, Snowden discovered, played an active and ongoing role as well, particularly in a large and controversial program called PRISM. Still active until at least December 2019 (critics charge it’s simply gone underground), PRISM used provisions in the Patriot Act to bulk-collect users’ internet data from the servers of web giants, like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, and Yahoo!. Initially, few big tech companies resisted, though Twitter indicated it “wouldn’t assist” in data capture (which is different from not allowing it), and Yahoo! fought the mandate in court. The FISA court rejected its claims. (Apple has denied ever being involved.)

In 2015, the Obama administration, no doubt under pressure from Snowden’s revelations, passed an amended bill called the Freedom Act. In theory, it limits the abuses of privacy witnessed under cover of the Patriot Act. The ACLU and other organizations concerned with ongoing erosion of privacy, like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, complained that the Freedom Act was a band-aid on ongoing privacy breaches from covert digital surveillance. Polls and studies of attitudes about privacy revealed that many Americans today are either oblivious to abuse by government or phlegmatic. And attitudes, as Greenwald notes, tend to flip-flop depending on whether Democrats or Republicans are in charge.

Past abuses have today been replaced by an entire system of surveillance conducted by government spy agencies as well as commercial enterprises. For from liberating us with democratizing technologies, the twenty-first century story of the web and artificial intelligence plunges back into the worst abuses of Hoover’s fedora-wearing G-men, only with vastly more data-capture and surveillance capability. What happened to progress?

Erik J. Larson

Fellow, Technology and Democracy Project
Erik J. Larson is a Fellow of the Technology & Democracy Project at Discovery Institute and author of The Myth of Artificial Intelligence (Harvard University Press, 2021). The book is a finalist for the Media Ecology Association Awards and has been nominated for the Robert K. Merton Book Award. He works on issues in computational technology and intelligence (AI). He is presently writing a book critiquing the overselling of AI. He earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy from The University of Texas at Austin in 2009. His dissertation was a hybrid that combined work in analytic philosophy, computer science, and linguistics and included faculty from all three departments. Larson writes for the Substack Colligo.

This is Digital McCarthyism