However, blocking and redirecting technologies, which are bound to grow more sophisticated, will undoubtedly be the least of it in the future. Google is already taking things to the next level in the service of a cause that just about anyone would applaud. They are implementing picture-detection technology to identify child abuse photographs whenever they appear on their systems, as well as testing technology that would remove illegal videos. Google's actions against child porn may be well intentioned indeed, but the technology being developed in the service of such anti-child-porn actions should chill us all. Imagine if, back in 1971, the Pentagon Papers, the first glimpse most Americans had of the lies behind the Vietnam War, had been deletable. Who believes that the Nixon White House wouldn't have disappeared those documents and that history wouldn't have taken a different, far grimmer course?
Or consider an example that's already with us. In 2009, many Kindle owners discovered that Amazon had reached into their devices overnight and remotely deleted copies of Orwell's Animal Farm and 1984 (no irony intended). The company explained that the books, mistakenly "published" on its machines, were actually bootlegged copies of the novels. Similarly, in 2012, Amazon erased the contents of a customer's Kindle without warning, claiming her account was "directly related to another which has been previously closed for abuse of our policies." Using the same technology, Amazon now has the ability to replace books on your device with "updated" versions, the content altered. Whether you are notified or not is up to Amazon.
In addition to your Kindle, remote control over your other devices is already a reality. Much of the software on your computer communicates in the background with its home servers, and so is open to "updates" that can alter content. The NSA uses malware—malicious software remotely implanted into a computer—to change the way the machine works. The Stuxnet code that likely damaged 1,000 centrifuges the Iranians were using to enrich uranium is one example of how this sort of thing can operate.
These days, every iPhone checks back with headquarters to announce what apps you've purchased; in the tiny print of a disclaimer routinely clicked through, Apple reserves the right to disappear any app for any reason. In 2004, TiVo sued Dish Network for giving customers set-top boxes that TiVo said infringed on its software patents. Though the case was settled in return for a large payout, as an initial remedy, the judge ordered Dish to electronically disable the 192,000 devices it had already installed in people's homes. In the future, there will be ever more ways to invade and control computers, alter or disappear what you're reading, and shunt you to sites weren't looking for.
Snowden's revelations of what the NSA does to gather information and control technology, which have riveted the planet since June, are only part of the equation. How the government will enhance its surveillance and control powers in the future is a story still to be told. Imagine coupling tools to hide, alter, or delete content with smear campaigns to discredit or dissuade whistleblowers, and the power potentially available to both governments and corporations becomes clearer.
The ability to move beyond altering content into altering how people act is obviously on governmental and corporate agendas as well. The NSA has already gathered blackmail data from the digital porn viewing habits of "radical" Muslims. The NSA sought to wiretap a Congressman without a warrant. The ability to collect information on Federal judges, government leaders, and presidential candidates makes J. Edgar Hoover's 1950s blackmail schemes as quaint as the bobby socks and poodle skirts of that era. The wonders of the Internet regularly stun us. The dystopian, Orwellian possibilities of the Internet have, until recently, not caught our attention in the same way. They should.
Read This Now, Before It's Deleted
The future for whistleblowers is grim. At a time not so far distant, when just about everything is digital, when much of the world's Internet traffic flows directly through the United States or allied countries, or through the infrastructure of American companies abroad, when search engines can find just about anything online in fractions of a second, when the Patriot Act and secret rulings by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court make Google and similar tech giants tools of the national security state (assuming organizations like the NSA don't simply take over the search business directly), and when the sophisticated technology can either block, alter, or delete digital material at the push of a button, the memory hole is no longer fiction.
Leaked revelations will be as pointless as dusty old books in some attic if no one knows about them. Go ahead and publish whatever you want. The First Amendment allows you to do that. But what's the point if no one will be able to read it? You might more profitably stand on a street corner and shout at passers by. In at least one easy-enough-to-imagine future, a set of Snowden-like revelations will be blocked or deleted as fast as anyone can (re)post them.
The ever-developing technology of search, turned 180 degrees, will be able to disappear things in a major way. The Internet is a vast place, but not infinite. It is increasingly being centralized in the hands of a few companies under the control of a few governments, with the US sitting on the major transit routes across the Internet's backbone.
About now you should feel a chill. We're watching, in real time, as 1984 turns from a futuristic fantasy long past into an instructional manual. There will be no need to kill a future Edward Snowden. He will already be dead.
Peter Van Buren blew the whistle on State Department waste and mismanagement during Iraqi reconstruction in his first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. A TomDispatch regular, he writes about current events at his blog, We Meant Well. His next book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent, will be available April 2014.
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