Digital technology is a double-edged sword, panellists claim

Some of the panellists who took part in the Brave New Worlds: Digital Freedom in East Asia talk at Asia House

Some of the panellists who took part in the Brave New Worlds: Digital Freedom in East Asia event at Asia House

Digital technology is a double-edged sword, panellists claim

28 May 2014

By Chitra Mogul

Digital technology is proving to be a doubled-edged sword. On the one hand, the Internet and mobile technology have provided  millions of people across the globe access to free information.

On the other hand, Governments have stepped up their surveillance technology, as demonstrated by the leaks by Edward Snowden, former National Security Agency-contractor-turned whistleblower.

According to Privacy International Executive Director Gus Hosein, digital technology was originally seen as a force for good and it was on the Western agenda for some time to promote a free and open Internet. However  governments around the world are looking increasingly to, if not curtail internet communication, then keep an eye on it through increasingly sophisticated surveillance methods. He said there was a need for more media debate about surveillance in different countries.

Up until a few years ago, the Internet was a challenge to govern, especially in certain countries. Every time governments tried to introduce a policy to monitor the Internet, they got pushed back. To get around this some governments now deploy surveillance secretly.

Instead of having people monitor the Internet, there is increasing surveillance of people through technology, he explained.

Speaking at the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival, Hosein said companies in the West, most of them in the US and UK, were the main suppliers of this surveillance technology to governments around the world. Hosein said there was a growing trend towards the setting up of national monitoring centres which conduct the mass surveillance of all information flowing into and out of the country.

These centres can intercept and monitor hundreds and thousands of communications at any given moment in time and can retain an entire nation’s communication for up to a year. Every voice call and email can be scanned and retained in this way, he added.

There is one device that can become a mobile phone base station the minute it is switched on. For instance, at a protest rally every mobile phone in the area could connect to the device which can simply be worn around the neck of a police officer and people in that geographic area will be identified, he explained. The device is relatively cheap, costing around £5,000, he said.

Another surveillance device that he mentioned switches on a mike or camera on an individual phone or computer. The person concerned would have no idea that their phone or computer had been compromised. He said that this technology was “the one that scares me the most as we just don’t know enough about it”.

This device already has the individual’s password and so that person would not necessarily have to log into a website or social media channel to record what’s being said. He said there were thousands of these Trojan horse deployments on people’s devices. These technologies were being sold to democratic as well as non-democratic governments around the world, he added.

He said there have been some efforts to prevent the sale of surveillance technology to repressive regimes. Measures have been implemented to ensure that governments ask tough questions of companies selling this type of surveillance technology and there is a move to introduce more stringent export policies to control the sale of surveillance technology to repressive regimes. He said the ways in which companies dodged this was by constantly moving their operations to different countries making it difficult to go after them.

Senior program officer for Internet Freedom at Freedom House, Washington, DC, Gigi Alford, said that thanks to the internet, political activists in countries with repressive regimes can express their grievances against the government. “It’s a way for society to collectively make things better,” she said.

“It has been a cat and mouse game. It now feels like the cat is winning but the mice are proving resilient. There are methods for bypassing that control but it takes courage,” she said.

British-Thai blogger, political activist and academic in exile Giles Ji Ungpakorn said that while human rights organisations can take up the case of individual prisoners, social movements within repressive regimes could achieve more themselves.

The session at the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival was moderated by Jo Glanville, Director of English Pen.

To see a video clip of this event click below:


To listen to the audio of the event click below:

Chitra Mogul has recently completed an internship at Asia House.