Top 10 technologies for tyranny

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Top 10 technologies for tyranny

Essential tools for up-and-coming despots.

In light of Google's spat with China we decided to do a review of the Top 10 technologies for dictators. While I suspect no readers have ambitions to take over the world nevertheless for those that do here's a list of technologies that could see you stroking a Persian cat and telling James Bond your operation.

Honourable mention: Civilization building games

Shaun Nichols: Okay, so they can't help you overthrow your local government and declare yourself king for life, but games certainly let you live out that fantasy.

For pretty much all of us, a copy of Civilization or Sim City is about as close as we will ever get to running a society. And for those that do harbour ambitions of a presidential coup, it's a fine way to hone your skills.

I know that Iain is a huge Civilization fan, but my personal favourite in the genera was Populous, a game in which players took on the role of ancient Greek and Roman gods and attempted to wipe out the opponent's followers with various acts of wrath from the heavens. Say what you will about Grand Theft Auto, but I don't recall CJ or Niko ever wiping out entire cities with tornadoes and plagues.

Iain Thomson: Shaun has it right; I've lost weekends to Civ 2, although the later versions lack the visceral power contained in the original games.

In one of Iain Banks' best works, 'Complicity', the lead character is addicted to the kind of game Civ fans dream of, where the level of control is so refined that it makes the Sims look like a wendy house. While I'm not saying that everyone who plays these kind of games is a megalomaniac they certainly touch a core need in many people.

Mankind is by its very nature a species that seeks to dominate and change its environment. Some of the greatest civilisations in history have come about because of this and also some of our worst disasters. Human beings are not software and I hope that future dictators don't learn this so they will fail to manage the complexities of human civilisation.

Honourable Mention: TV

Iain Thomson: With every revolution the means for communicating with the populace are key to success. Right after the government headquarters the television stations are key to a successful coup.

In days of yore this meant the radio stations but increasingly a top target for revolutionaries is the television system. Much of the world's population gets its information from the TV, the 'glass nipple' as Harlan Ellison famously described it.

The reasons are fairly simple. Since TV is where people get their information a populace that sees a familiar face urging them to remain calm is a very powerful force indeed. If a squad of soldiers starts telling you what to do it's a lot easier to accept if the well-known presenter on the TV tells you it's OK.

TV doesn't just work for revolutions however. In the Cold War BBC continuity announcers were drafted to record messages to be played in the event of a nuclear attack, something one of them described as 'utterly chilling.' Given the effects of EMP it would probably be the last public appearances they ever made.

Shaun Nichols: Even as popular as the internet is, people still have a great amount of trust in what is broadcast on TV.

A silly rumour may elicit little more than a sarcastic chuckle and an eye roll when viewed on a blog or message board, but that same premise gains much more credence when presented by a television personality.

Don't believe me? How about the idea that a nation would be subject to a catastrophic national disaster because of a myth that their forefathers made a deal with the devil to escape the bonds of slavery hundreds of years ago? Pretty silly when read online, yet a fair amount of people lent it legitimacy when the appropriate TV talking head floated the idea.

10. UAVs

Iain Thomson: Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) are a very useful tool for keeping control of a populace by bypassing the need for actual pilots.

The US military is currently expanding its UAV fleet at an unprecedented rate, simply because they are more cost efficient, easier to use and more flexible than regular planes. For the first time the number of pilots recruited for remote flying has exceeded actual hands-on pilots, and it's easy to see why.

A physical pilot needs extraordinary reflexes, great spacial awareness and an understanding of physics that also makes them great astronauts. Unfortunately they also need years of training, a certain psychological profile and the need to eat and sleep. With a UAV you can put a plane in the air and have the pilot operate it with less training, fewer costs and he or she can go home to the family at the end of the day despite flying over the skies of a foreign country while working.

That's not to say that UAVs aren't without their problems. Pilots are recording physiological issues with their work, since the ability to blow up a bunch of people and then pop outside for a cigarette break and then go back to the office and do it all again causes mental health conflicts. Nevertheless for the budding dictator they're a smart buy.

Shaun Nichols: One convenient feature the UAV offers governments is the relative sanitization of combat. In the darkest days of World War II, RAF pilots took to the sky knowing that the odds were high that they would not be around to see the end of the war. That sort of risk ensures that a person has to firmly believe that what they are doing is essential to the survival of everyone they know and love.

With UAVs, the pilot is further insulated from the dangers of war. Even if the plane gets shot down and blown into a small crater, the pilot can walk away and kiss his loved ones.

Many would argue that the recent events in Iraq would pose a very strong argument that the reasons behind going to war are a far easier sell when people believe that their own countrymen will face relatively little risk in the operation. This is not something that should be encouraged if we are to eliminate pointless conflict.

9. DNA

Shaun Nichols: When someone mentions DNA databases people immediately start to suspect that tin foil hats will soon enter the conversation. But that shouldn't stop you, our ambitious young despot, from making use of the technology.

Sure, DNA databases can be very useful in tracking down criminals and investigating heinous crimes, but in the right hands they can also be a good way to keep track of who's who and where they have been.

When you get down to it, things just don't get more personal than a genetic signature, and a DNA database is the ultimate way to catalogue everyone under your power.

Iain Thomson: I have very serious doubts about the use of DNA testing. One gets the feeling that the police in the UK are using arrests as a way to expand their database and the main people getting tested are from ethnic minorities, specifically the black population.

That's not to say that DNA testing isn't useful. Several people have been freed after DNA evidence showed they could not have committed the crimes they were sentenced for, and longstanding crimes have been solved by matching samples to cold cases. But, as our knowledge of the human genome expands we're going to see genetic testing taken to new and, I suspect, unhealthy levels.

Let's not forget that DNA fingerprints have not been proven to be totally individual, just as fingerprints haven't. I'm not saying that the science isn't strong but I worry that DNA will be used to force a guilty verdict where perhaps it isn't justified.

8. GPS

Iain Thomson: The use of GPS to track criminals was pioneered in the US and has since spread around the world. But looking ahead GPS could be a key technology in keeping populations quiescent.

We're already seeing moves afoot to have GPS installed in all cars so that road pricing schemes can be put into operation. Everything from phones to pet's collars is now having GPS fitted and the ability to read the signals means we could all be tracked much more efficiently. Repressive regimes have already proved keen on such technologies.

As a prank in 2002 Danish artist Jakob Boeskov created a fictional sniper rifle, which would fire GPS devices into demonstrators from a distance so that they could be tracked, while a digital camera in the scope recorded their image. He took it to the China Police exhibition in Beijing and was offered venture capital and manufacturing facilities by a local firm.

That said GPS has some serious flaws, principally that it doesn't work indoors. There's no way round that one since you need line of sight with the positioning satellites but limitations aside GPS could very easily be used as a technology for tracking and monitoring people.

Shaun Nichols: One of the advantages GPS offers to authoritarian regimes is the benefit of an already-established network. No need to launch multiple satellites or spend billions to construct an infrastructure, the GPS network already built it for you.

Furthermore, as the GPS system is upgraded, it becomes an even more efficient tool to track and monitor individuals. With every new generation, the technology is able to more accurately follow where people are at right this moment.

Going forward, GPS could become one of the most valuable tools available to authoritarian regimes. As soon as the system can combined with systems such as RFID and large-scale databases, governments will be able to track the movements and activities of citizens with startling accuracy.

7. ID Cards

Shaun Nichols: ID cards have been around for a while, and in dozens of perfectly free societies they are little more than a way to verify how old someone is and whether they are qualified to operate a motor vehicle.

But these days, with the advent of RFID, ID cards can also be used to keep tabs on where a person is and what they are doing. If managed correctly, an authoritarian regime can know who is in the country, who is out of the country and where they have been in the meantime.

In 2008, the Chinese government outlined a plan to put RFID tags in as many as a billion ID cards, making the industry a booming new sector. The investment is believed to be as high as $6bn, meaning that there will be plenty of vendors willing to help you out.

Iain Thomson: In an interview with the head of the London computer crime unit I asked if ID cards would be a deterrent to crime. His answer, off the record, was “No, but illicit ID card factories will prosper.”

ID cards in the UK were first introduced in the UK during the First World War as a security measure (sound familiar anyone?) but abandoned once the war to end all wars was over. They were reintroduced in the Second World War and kept on after the Nazis were defeated until a Liberal called Clarence Henry Willcock refused to hand over his card and the law was changed, even though he lost his legal case.

One of the most disturbing things about living in the US is the first thing you hear from any policeman is “Show me your ID.” Without it you are an unperson, and subject to suspicion.

ID cards are a great way for repressive regimes to cow the populace. Take away someone's ID card in a society that fetishises them and you have a huge tool in disenfranchising those who believe in liberty.

6. Complicit companies

Iain Thomson: It is said that no snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible. The same is true for some companies it seems.

I'm sure when the Chinese authorities went to Cisco for the equipment to build the Great Firewall of China the local head of sales thought about what it could be used for, but that those thoughts were elbowed aside by the thought of his or her annual bonus package if the sale went through. Similarly Microsoft and Yahoo routinely hand over user details to the Chinese authorities when asked, despite that action often leads to jail sentences for people who publicly express an opinion.

Other companies do exactly the same thing, and have done so throughout history. IBM provided the Nazi regime with a customised Hollerith punch card system to help automate Hitler's Final Solution and Thomas Watson was awarded a medal by Germany for it, although he eventually gave it back. Both General Motors and Ford also helped the Nazi war effort initially and members of both companies also received medals from the regime.

Looking further back Britain fought two wars for the right of the British East India Company to import opium into China, after the Qing government banned importation in an effort to halt rampant drug addiction. Many other countries and companies have similarly dodgy records.

Repressive regimes can't exist in a vacuum, they need outside companies to survive. The fact that so many companies are happy to do this tells you everything you need to know about the profit motive and its power over conscience.

Shaun Nichols: One of the more interesting quirks of unfettered capitalism is how well it compliments authoritarian regimes in other countries. The shareholders want ever-increasing profits, and dictatorial regimes can offer a cheap, controlled labour system that perpetuates operational profits.

George Orwell would be proud. Or profoundly disturbed. I'm not sure which.

Companies such as Google and Yahoo started off with all sorts of idealistic rules and morals, but those ideas were quickly cast aside when one of the world's biggest economies came knocking. It seems that the 'do no evil' credo simply doesn't match up to 'soaring stock options' when it really comes down to it.

The economic crisis only furthers this. Saving face for the shareholders is one thing, but saving thousands of jobs is another. When faced with the choice of bending one's own moral values or having to tell people that they will no longer have a livelihood, the majority of managers will cave in and save the jobs of themselves and those around them.

5. Malware/keyloggers

Shaun Nichols: The internet can be a real nuisance for would-be despots. Those pesky news services, blogs and social networking sites are more than willing to let any sort of troublemaker speak up and spread their thoughts to others on the web.

Not much you can do to keep tabs on web users, right? Wrong. With the latests advances in malware and spyware, you can gather all sorts of intelligence on your potential enemies with little more than an email attachments.

Given that so many users neglect to monitor and update their systems, or even run security software, infecting people with a specially-crafted trojan can be both easy and effective. Even if they do run a security suite, innovations such as rootkit infections and zero-day exploits mean that even well-protected systems can be compromised.

Don't believe us? Just ask HP. They used spyware to keep a careful eye on who might have been leaking information to reporters. Just don’t ask the company how it turned out.

Iain Thomson: The biggest threat to any company or individual is highly targeted malware.

Antivirus companies are very good at picking up virus signatures, but these days you don't need to watch out for the mass market malware, because internet spies go for a low profile with few infections. The fact is that if someone crafts an individual form of malware just for you there's very little that will stop it.

So we're seeing human rights organisers targeted with individual pieces of code, top targets getting hand-crafted attention from certain powers that be. This isn't going to stop anytime soon, so be on your guard.


Iain Thomson: One of the most memorable images in George Orwell's 1984 is found in the telescreen, a monitoring device that every citizen has to have installed in their home and cannot turn off so that they can be constantly monitored. We might not have that yet, but step outside and it's a different story.

One of the things I've noticed since moving to the US is the lack of CCTV cameras everywhere. After 20 years in London, the most heavily CCTVed city in the world, I've got very used to being constantly under surveillance; indeed it can be a fun game to stop in the city, look around, and count how many cameras can pick you up. We even have cameras that not only video you but use directional microphones to record conversations. Good thing we don't have a repressive regime in power in the UK, at the moment at least.

Here in the US cameras are less common but their installation is growing. As the technology improves we are seeing video analytics being used in conjunction with CCTV footage, to automate the tiresome process of manually trying to identify movements and track people. Such systems were apparently used to help identify the organisers of the Tibetan independence movement during demonstrations

The aegis for this is to help fight crime but cameras seldom stop crimes, they just make it easier to catch the perpetrators. Nevertheless they are highly visible and politicians like them because they make it look as though something is being done. The police like them too, and have their own mobile video units. In the hands of the wrong regime then CCTV can prove very useful indeed at rooting out troublemakers.

Shaun Nichols: I believe the idea of the CCTV is especially disturbing in Western societies because we have spent centuries believing in the idea of an omniscient, all-seeing God. When you hand over similar powers to computers and people, the natural reaction is to be uneasy and distrustful.

In reality, CCTV systems are not nearly as reliable as one would think. The limits of storage keep the resolutions and clarity of the videos down, and even when caught on camera, doubt can be raised as to the actual identity of the person on camera. And as Iain noted, the cameras only record and display the images after the crime has been committed.

One thing CCTV does do well, however, is capture potentially disturbing images. Following the Columbine High School shootings in 1999, surveillance footage of the gunman was amongst the most prevalent and haunting data to surface, and the images only aggravated fears and hysteria over the possibility of future incidents.

3. Databases

Shaun Nichols: Since the earliest days of totalitarian regimes, databases have been used to keep track of the whereabouts and activities of large populations.

The beauty of the database is that it creates a streamlined, efficient method for reducing everyday human activity to a collection of statistics. A well-maintained database is particularly effective in times of strife, as modern tools have made it possible to cross-reference names and locations with previously flagged entries.

With one or two of our other listed innovations combined with your trusty database, you can not only know where your potential enemies are, but where they have been and even make predictions about where they are going and what they might be doing. Truly, and invaluable tool for efficient government management of a potentially subversive population.

Iain Thomson: During all the anger about ID cards a lot of people missed the point. It's not the cards that are the problem, it's the databases behind them.

Civil servants love databases, and so too does business. If you can quantify something you can attach a value to it, and therefore find a way to extract money from tax or sales. But this ignores a fundamental principle in IT-garbage in/garbage out.

The fact is that so many databases have false information stored in them. In the UK the police database has so many faulty bits of information that it's almost useless in court. A few years ago I had to undergo a police check as I was doing volunteer work with children and the check made me very nervous indeed in case someone with the same name had committed a crime.

Databases are, by their nature, repositories of information to be mined at will. But when that information is wrong ordinary citizens have very little recourse. After all, it's in the database so it must be right.

To the would-be dictator databases are very useful, since they allow you to find links between your enemies. Unfortunately those links are often spurious at best.

2. Web monitoring

Iain Thomson: Web monitoring companies are growing in popularity every day, both for companies and private individuals.

Most services have a team of monitors who check out web pages and and rate them based on their content. Buyers of the service can then be assured that people aren't using their internet connection for anything unsavoury or excessively time wasting. It's a popular area of business, not least because it protects companies against litigation if their staff are caught breaking the law.

Police are also using web monitoring software to check on possible motives for crimes. More than one recent murder case has had, as evidence, detailed records of the online searches of suspects and has found searches like 'disposal of bodies' or 'poisoning' which have helped establish guilt.

But some countries have set up their own internal web monitoring systems, notably China although other countries also practice this. Such systems not only allow content to be blocked at source but also allow the authorities to keep track of what individuals are doing online. They are helped in this by companies operating in the country in question more often than not.

Basically web monitoring is just another form of undercover surveillance, but as the world becomes to rely more and more on the internet so web monitoring is becoming more useful as a method for crushing dissent.

Shaun Nichols: Normally people are worried about technologies transitioning from the government sector to the private sector. In the case of web monitoring, however, we hope that the technology stays within the home and away from those in power.

If you're trying to keep your children safe and steer clear of harmful or potentially illegal activity, web monitoring applications can be very useful. If you're a dictatorial regime looking to see who's doing what, it can be a great way to oppress your population and single out possible dissenters.

As with many of the other technologies on our list, web monitoring can become far more dangerous when combined with other tools. If a government were to tie in their monitoring platform in with a database on its citizens and GPS tracking or RFID records, you would have a very effective platform for controlling a population.

1. Firewalls

Shaun Nichols: You can’t read what you can’t see. That is the beautiful thing about the firewall; it lets you block out material before it even gets to the user.

Sure, some people might note that firewalls are effective for preventing malware attacks and blocking harmful connections, but those people are missing the big picture that any up and coming dictator can clearly see.

The beauty of the firewall is that it can block out any sort of connection. Don't want users to share files? Block the ports used by P2P programs. Don't want your user to see those pesky news sites that deliver messages counter to your own? Get yourself a big enough firewall and those worries are a thing of the pass.

Still not convinced? Need more evidence that firewalls can be a great way to oppress a population? Well then, how about China as a shining example? The world's most populous nation is able to filter out internet access to more than 1.3bn people through the use of a well organized and carefully maintained firewall.

Truly, for the ruler who demands the finest in information suppression, the large-scale public firewall is a must.

Iain Thomson: This was a tough call. I wanted web monitoring in the number one slot, Shaun pointed out that firewalls were currently the most effective tool for tyranny. Eventually he wore me down.

The fact remains that for all the talk of the internet being about freedom of information firewalls can put a stop to that in an instant. A good firewall operator can shut down a lot of information and censor the truth from those that seek to find it.

China is a great example. Going online there is an experience, and not a good one. You find yourself frustrated by the lack of sites you want and I know a lot of hacks have real problems operating in the country because of this.

But it's worse for the locals. Chatting to a girlfriend of someone in Shanghai I was shocked to find out she didn't know about the Tienanmen Square atrocity. This was a woman in her early 20s but she had no knowledge of the fact her government had gunned down thousands of her countryfolk because the information had no way of getting through. State media wouldn't mention in and the only source of news from the internet was blocked by firewalls.

A successful society relies on the populace being informed about the world (something American TV should remember) and firewalls are the greatest barrier to that.

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