Junta 2.0: When Privacy Concerns Become Security Concerns
Two programmers, Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden, have recently discovered a hidden file on the Apple iPhone 4 and iPad 3G that stores detailed location information at least for a period of several months. While Apple first reacted to the public attention in a similar manner like the Chinese government (before they eventually responded to the questions without, however, managing to allay the doubts), these privacy concerns that have been raised trigger further questions when looking at other countries: In undemocratic regimes, privacy flaws might easily become security issues.
Imagine the following scenario: A student returns to Burma from a trip abroad. The military intelligence, checking her smartphone at the airport, discovers that she has not only been with her family in Bangkok but also visited a Burmese exile media outlet in Chiang Mai and, let’s say, she paid a five hour visit to the British embassy. Knowing that this embassy is secretly providing training for clandestine citizen-journalists, the intelligence gets its victim served on a silver platter, garnished with (almost) irrefutable evidence.
This privacy leak means that you can establish quite a significant picture of a person’s recent history without even having to control the mobile operators. And technology would allow to use Geofencing for sending notifications to the intelligence once a person enters or leaves a designated area.
In the age of “Junta 2.0″, rather than cutting off a dissident’s connection, the intelligence would shadow him with his mobile-turned-bugging-device. Would it be surprising if all Burmese dissidents received a free iPhone from their government? Mobile networks in Burma don’t seem to be very developed yet, but what counts is the accuracy of location information collected abroad. In a future “Saffron Revolution”, the Burmese police won’t have to bother with identifying supporters on photographs – they simply download and evaluate the location database consolidated.db.
Of course, similar concerns apply also to other technologies, such as social media. Facebook is presently accessible inside Burma and one cannot but wonder why a regime that blocks foreign online media and email services allows the kids to worship Aung San Suu Kyi on social networks. One explanation would be the transition towards a new and quiet way of controlling the public sphere by secretly choosing unproblematic people according to their past behavior who are admitted access to wealth, education and influential positions. Non-compliant behavior thus won’t lead to exemplary punishment anymore, but to a mysterious series of failures when these people apply for a college place, a job, or a passport.