From the Viewsroom

Democracy is down, but not out

Paran Balakrishnan | Updated on December 30, 2019 Published on December 30, 2019

As digital tech evolves, its use by leaders to spy on citizens grows, too

It used to be accepted wisdom that authoritarian governments would collapse under the weight of their own contradictions, and democracy would triumph. But as the Roaring ‘20s approach, the great fear is democracy’s about to be swamped by authoritarianism, populist and identity politics and the rise of technology that’s starting to fashion the world we live in. In Asia, authoritarianism is winning by a short head. Yes, there are genuine democracies like India, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and also currently, Indonesia. There’s also Malaysia which, till the last election, was considered a virtual one-party state, but that’s all changed.

At the other end of the scale, there’s China and Singapore, exercising iron control over their citizens. There’s also Vietnam with its booming economy, that’s followed China’s one-party state-capitalism model. Some scholars argue that in many parts of Asia, like China, people will settle for effectiveness and prosperity over voting rights.

But it’s technology that will threaten democracy in countless different ways, with the rise of fake news and social media which shapes what we see online. And look at the Chinese, world leaders in facial recognition technology they’re said to be selling to almost 50 countries. This technology can track every movement. Combine that with phones tracking our movements, messages and calls, and Alexa home smart-speakers. We’ve already started to see how India’s government will attempt to keep its eye on us in as unimpeded way as possible. The government’s stonewalled all queries about who used the Pegasus spyware, although the company insists it sells only to state institutions. And the Personal Data Protection Bill brought before Parliament contains far wider state surveillance powers than originally mooted.

Also, look at how police have been countering agitations in the wake of the anti-NRC/CAA protests, using a combination of surveillance cameras and drones to keep an eye on gathering crowds. At another level, the Internet’s being cut at the slightest hint of trouble. We don’t know yet if facial recognition software is being used in a big way in India. But it will make an appearance. Now, the battle is to ensure that technology and those who would use it malevolently don’t end up controlling us.

The writer is Editorial Consultant with BusinessLine

Published on December 30, 2019
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