Fearing Government, Fearing Technology: the Ying and Yang

America's Top Fears 2015Americans fear government corruption more than anything else.

More than terrorist attacks, identity theft, running out of money, economic collapse, drunk drivers, police brutality, insects and snakes.   Gee, we fear Government Corruption more than we are afraid of Obamacare and even more than Reptiles.

Government corruption?  In the United States of America?   Our greatest fear?

And that fear trumps any other by a wide margin – 13 percentage points.   Our second greatest fear – Cyberterrorism – isn’t even close.

Well, so says Chapman University’s Wilkinson College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences which recently completed a statistically valid survey of what Americans fear.

Chapman classified all the fears into 10 “fear domains” such as man-made disasters, technology, government, crime, daily life, and so forth.   As a group (or domain), Americans most feared man-made disasters, then technology, then government.  Lowest domains on the “fear scale” are Personal Anxieties, Daily Life and the Judgment of Others.

This makes some sense.  We believe we have much control our personal lives than we do over global issues such as war, disaster, or even the march of technology.  “Daily Life” we as individuals can conquer.  “Cyber terrorism” not so much.

Here are the respondents’ worst fears:

Fear Fear Domain Afraid or Very Afraid
Corruption of Government Officials Government 58.0%
Cyber-terrorism Technology 44.8%
Corporate Tracking of Personal Information Technology 44.6%
Terrorist Attacks Man-Made Disasters 44.4%
Government Tracking of Personal Information Technology 41.4%
Bio-Warfare Man-Made Disasters 40.9%
Identity Theft Crime 39.6%
Economic Collapse Man-Made Disasters 39.2%
Running out of Money in the Future Personal Future 37.4%
Credit Card Fraud Crime 36.9%

 

Many, if not most, of these concerns revolve around technology.  Even a couple of fears classified as “crime” are really technology-based:  identity theft and credit card fraud.

“Fear of technology” is a long-standing and even ancient human dread.   Such fears gave rise to the Luddite movement, when humans smashed power looms creating cloth in the early 19th Century, and many science fiction stories ranging from Frankenstein to the 1927 film Metropolis to the computerphobia of the 1980s (“you’ll never get one of those damned computers on my desk.  I have a secretary with a typewriter.”)

New waves of techno-phobia are now washing our shores, including the fear of robots taking over work and a significant new fear of artificial intelligence (AI).  Even tech heavyweight entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk and Bill Gates have voiced the fear of AI, which, of course, might be the last fear humans ever have, as our future robot overloads decide to do away with the frail, short-lived, human beings who created them.   This concern about AI has caused the White House to hold four workshops around the United States to address the effects of artificial intelligence.  The first one, held in Seattle on May 24, 2016, focused, perhaps not surprisingly, on the effects of AI on government and the legal system.

Tracking Personal Information

Some of these fears interact with other.   Respondents to this survey clearly are concerned about tracking of their personal information by corporations and governments.   Yet many of us willingly “opt in” to this tracking, using store loyalty cards or tagging the faces of our friends and children on sites such as Facebook and Instagram.

Don’t we know that we are willingly building huge corporate databases every time we search for something online or make a credit card purchase?    Every time we tag a friend’s face online we are contributing to vast corporate data store which will be (or perhaps is) being used for facial recognition.  For these reasons, and the advent of apps like FindFace, the Observer recently recommended individuals pull all their photos off the Internet. (if you check out my Facebook page you will see very few photos of family.)

And access to these databases is sold to the highest bidder.   Soon we’ll walk into a restaurant or other store and be greeted by name, thanks to a database of faces and facial recognition software.  Perhaps the greeter will be a robot replacing the infamous elderly WalMart employees at the door.   The greeter will ask what we want for dinner or what we are shopping for, and even make suggestions based upon our previous purchase history of food and menu items, or our most recent online searches on Amazon.

Mobile phone companies are getting into the tracking game.  Verizon has tried it, and NTT Docomo launched its tracking software in May, 2016 (that link, if you click on it, has a tracking code embedded as well!).

Potentially even more disturbing uses exist.   Perhaps a store will match our face and identity with our history of unpaid parking tickets.  And some big data algorithm will identify that people with unpaid parking tickets who have few Facebook friends but are looking to buy camouflage clothes are at high potential for shoplifting.

Many private buildings and stores also use video surveillance.  These private videos were essential to capturing the Boston marathon bomber.   But how do corporations use their troves of video data?   Are they marrying facial recognition databases, online search/shopping data and video so they know and track who is on premise?  Certainly such data is useful in solving theft and other crimes, but how else might corporations use it?   It is possible that the whereabouts of individual human beings might be constantly tracked in the future, as soon as they leave their private homes.

Government Tracking and Corruption

Edward Snowden revealed new information about United States Federal Government tracking of data including a database of cell phone call data (although not, as far as we know, recording of domestic calls themselves).   We also know local and federal law enforcement has used “stingray” devices to simulate cell sites thereby capturing the identities of all cell phones in a geographical area.   Many jurisdictions have extensively deployed video surveillance cameras as well as dashboard cameras and now body-worn video.

Furthermore some police departments are monitoring social media including twitter, Instagram and Facebook.  Much of this “monitoring” is really for criminal investigation.  Many crooks are notoriously vain and stupid, posting their hauls from home burglary on Facebook or fencing the goods on Craigslist.  Unfortunately domestic violence threats and threats toward teachers and schools are also often found on social media.

No police department, in my extensive personal experience, is building a giant database of facial images and personal information for tracking and spying on citizens.  Certainly such databases exist for people who have been booked into jail, and facial recognition apps exist for use by law enforcement, based upon mug shot databases.  But collection of information about individual law-abiding citizens is, I think, rare.

And this brings me full circle back to Americans’ Number 1 fear:  government corruption.

Again, in my personal experience, corruption simply does not exist in the work of the average government employee.  On the West Coast, at least, police officers don’t accept $20 bills when you hand over your driver’s license after being caught speeding, and building plans officials don’t expect cash to expedite a permit or overlook certain violations of the building code.   There certainly are individual cases of corruption such as one which recently occurred in Utah.

Politicians – elected officials – get in trouble all the time, to the point where Virginia and Illinois both seem to expect corruption from their Governors.

And, indeed, perhaps this is why Americans fear Government Corruption.   It is not the cop they meet on the street, or the building inspector, or the DMV license examiner.  It is the Governor, the assemblymen, who are on the take.   It is Hillary Clinton, who kept her State Department email on a server in the basement of her home, or Donald Trump, who lies publicly about Muslims rejoicing after 9/11, yet wins elections.

Perhaps government corruption should be our number 1 fear.

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Filed under corruption, cybersecurity, disaster, fear, government

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