Thursday, January 23, 2014

Maybe the Most Orwellian Text Message a Government's Ever Sent

“Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in a mass disturbance.”

That's a text message that thousands of Ukrainian protesters
spontaneously received on their cell phones today, as a new law prohibiting
public demonstrations went into effect. It was the regime's police force, sending
protesters the perfectly dystopian text message to accompany the newly
minted, perfectly dystopian legislation. In fact, it's downright Orwellian (and I
hate that adjective, and only use it when absolutely necessary, I swear).

But that's what this is: it's technology employed to detect noncompliance, to
hone in on dissent. The NY Times reports that the "Ukrainian government used
telephone technology to pinpoint the locations of cell phones in use near clashes
between riot police officers and protesters early on Tuesday." Near. Using a cell
phone near a clash lands you on the regime's hit list.

See, Kiev is tearing itself to shreds right now, but since we're kind of burned out
on protests, riots, and revolutions at the moment, it's being treated as below-
the-fold news. Somehow, the fact that over a million people are marching,
camping out, and battling with Ukraine's increasingly authoritarian government
is barely making a ripple behind such blockbuster news bits as bridge closures
and polar vortexes. Yes, even though protesters are literally building catapults
and wearing medieval armour and manning flaming dump trucks.

Hopefully news of the nascent techno-security state will turn some heads—it's
right out of 1984, or, more recently, Elysium: technology deployed to "detect"
dissent. Again, this tech appears to be highly arbitrary; anyone near the protest
is liable to be labeled a "participant," as if targeting protesters directly and so
broadly wasn't bad enough in the first place.

It's further reminder that authoritarian regimes are exploiting the very
technology once celebrated as a vehicle for liberation; last year, in Turkey, you'll
recall, the state rounded up dissident Twitter users. Now, Ukraine is tracing the
phone signal directly. Dictators have already proved plenty adept at pulling the 
plug on the internet altogether.

All of this puts lie to the lately-popular mythology that technology is inherently a
liberating force—with the right hack, it can oppress just as easily.

By Brian Merchant 


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