Thursday 21 September 2017

A new, global fascism, based on mass surveillance is on the rise

By Dirk Helbing
Last weekend, I spoke to business leaders at the Petersberger Dialogue in the Villa Hammerschmidt. I warned that a new, global fascism, based on mass surveillance, appears to be on the rise.

The German talk can be viewed here
A similar, English video can be found here

Recently, an increasing number of experts and intellectuals have warned of an emerging technological totalitarianism, enabled by what some people call “surveillance capitalism.” 
A recent, much discussed contribution in Scientific American raised the question “Will democracy survive Big Data and Artificial Intelligence”, pointed to the dangers of new kinds of behavioural manipulation. Even Cass Sunstein, one of the fathers of “Nudging”, has recently issued grave words of warning.

Today, secret services and Big Data companies possess much more data about us than were needed to run totalitarian states in the past. It is unlikely that such power will not be misused at some point in time. 
Moreover, it becomes increasingly evident that all the features of fascism have been implemented digitally or are currently being implemented. They could be used on a society-wide scale at any time. 
This includes:
  • mass surveillance, 
  • unethical experiments with humans,  
  • social engineering,  
  • forced conformity (“Gleichschaltung”),
  •  propaganda and censorship,  
  • “benevolent” dictatorship,
  •  (predictive) policing,  
  • different valuation of people,  
  • relativity of human rights,  
  • and, it seems, even euthanasia for the expected times of crisis in our unsustainable world.
The signs are clear. We are faced with the emergence of a new kind of totalitarianism of global dimensions that must be stopped immediately. “An emergency operation is inevitable, if we want to save democracy, freedom, and human dignity,” I warned. “Arguments such as terrorism, cyber threats and climate change have been used to undermine our privacy, our rights, and our democracy.”

The emergence of mass surveillance after 9/11, enabled by the Patriot Act and other laws, has led to the incremental erosion of liberties and human rights. Since the Snowden revelations, we know that there is mass surveillance of billions of people around the world. But most of us still have no idea how pervasive it is, and how it may influence their lives in future. 
Billions of dollars have been spent on mass surveillance tools of secret services to hack our computers, smartphones, smart TVs and smart cars. The estimated amount of data collected about us every day ranges from millions of numbers to Gigabytes of data. As a result, we have ended up with the digital tools for a data-driven, AI-based so-called “benevolent” dictatorship, where big businesses and the state determine “what is best for us.” Moreover, we have seen that democracies in Hungary, Poland, Turkey, and elsewhere have already undergone transformations towards more autocratic regimes.

Citizens are being targeted, their data collected and consolidated. This is used to create a near complete profile of each person, their nature, habits and preferences. Each profile can contain thousands of specifiers. These digital doubles can be used to make thousands of computer experiments with our virtual self to find out how our thinking and behaviour can be manipulated.

More specifically, in today’s attention economy, our personal data is being applied to customize information such that it will influence our attention, emotions, opinions, decisions, and behaviours – often subconsciously – by a technique called big nudging or neuro-marketing. This ranges from steering our consumption behaviour to manipulating voting behaviour in elections.

In the wrong hands, the misuse of surveillance-based personal data will have catastrophic consequences for us and for society. In an explicitly or implicitly totalitarian state, this kind of information could be used to predict and identify those people who don’t agree with certain government policies and sanction them even before they can exercise their democratic rights.

The British secret service, for example, runs a program called Karma Police, which shows where our societies are heading. This Citizen Score, which is currently also tested in China, may be used to run an entirely new kind of autocratic society, or even police state. According to plans, the Citizen Score would determine the level of access to facilities, products and services. We would be scored or penalised according to our behaviours. Reading critical news or having the “wrong” kinds of social ties, for example, would get you minus points.

To counter this danger of a digital totalitarian state, I strongly suggest that we should:

  • ensure a democratic framework of use for powerful cyberinfrastructures, 
  • ensure scientific use by interdisciplinary teams, considering multiple perspectives,  
  • ensure ethical use considering human rights and human dignity,  
  • ensure transparency,  
  • ensure cyber-security (by decentralization etc.),
  •  prevent misuse (by effective laws/remedies and in-built self-destruction mechanisms in case of serious misuse, malfunction, or political power grabs),  
  • ensure informational self-determination (e.g. with a Personal Data Store),  
  • ensure informational self-determination by giving citizens the right to opt-out,  
  • turn war rooms into peace rooms, as described in a recent proposal by myself and Peter Seele.
The purpose of these video message is to create and spread public awareness of the insidious extent that individual personal data is being used today.

The door is wide open for global fascism to take hold, unless we take action now.

I hope that you will pay attention to these well-founded concerns regarding the rise of a technological totalitarianism, potentially on a global scale. My presentation offers much evidence. 
If this is a topic of interest that you would like to investigate further, you are kindly invited to contact me at
An alternative vision of a better, participatory, digital future that everyone can benefit from, is offered here: A Digital World to Thrive in and here: and here:
Thank you for reading.

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