The Road to Digital Serfdom and The Police State are Intertwined

“It is poor civic hygiene to install technologies that could someday facilitate a police state” — Bruce Schneier

In an earlier article, I argued that the Road to Digital Serfdom is inevitable, citing Friedrich Hayek, the Austrian libertarian philosopher and economist.

“Moreover, Hayek shows a technical issue — often argued by Milton Friedman — with government legislation: It’s rare that legislation is repealed (e.g., “hate speech” laws in the West), rare that nonsensical government programmes are closed down (e.g., Safe Schools in Victoria), and rare that governments decrease in size, power, and influence. For digital privacy, this natural cadence of ever increasing government power can only mean more legislation against citizens’ digital privacy and freedom; this cadence can never mean more digital privacy and freedom. This is the road to digital serfdom”.

Hayek also wrote about the increase of government power during national emergencies. During an emergency — e.g., wars, pandemics, social upheaval — governments demand more power and control over citizens’ lives. Emergencies provide an enemy against which citizens can unite; suddenly, politicians sense a path to more power through exploiting a rare moment when citizens are united. Emergencies provide citizens with purpose & meaning; political differences and ideologies unexpectedly melt away and are replaced by an Emmanuel Goldstein-like figure, whose mere mention provides the shrewd politician with endless opportunities to gain more power.

And make no mistake: The response to these political opportunities isn’t happenstance; the response — a grab for political power and control — is a policy document sitting in a drawer, waiting for an emergency. This was a document written long ago for such an occasion.

Moreover, the shrewd politician has already set the stage for such a power grab, as John Roskam from the IPA writes [in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic]:

“In Victoria, the most extreme house arrest laws in the country were enacted without parliamentary authority and without any form of public or democratic scrutiny. They were simply made under an enabling act that allows the government do anything it “considers is reasonably necessary to protect public health”. Using this power, Victoria has enacted house arrest laws that are arbitrary, unpredictable, and that are changed, literally, hour by hour at the whim of politicians and bureaucrats.

On Wednesday morning the Victorian Premier declared that it was against the law for anyone to leave their home for any non-essential purpose, including couples who lived apart visiting each other. Just before 5pm that day, following a community backlash, the government announced couples would be exempt from the law.

Meanwhile, in New South Wales, police officers harass people sitting alone on park benches. In 1984, Big Brother at least allowed Winston Smith to go outside”.

The Police State Meets The Road to Digital Serfdom

Of course the enforcement of such a police state has the potential to be driven by The Road to Digital Serfdom.

In 2015, the Abbott government implemented the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment (Data Retention) Act, which was originally envisioned by the Gillard government. The Act forced telecommunications companies to store customer metadata for two years. Twenty-two government agencies can access Australians’ metadata without a warrant.

Naturally, the scope of the Act has already increased, not only the type of data collected but now local councils want a piece of the mass surveillance action. To quote myself, “this cadence can never mean more digital privacy and freedom. This is the road to digital serfdom”.

The meeting of the Police State and The Road to Digital Serfdom in Australia occurred during the coronavirus pandemic:

  • The NSW government using ANPR to track drivers who should not be out during Easter.
  • The WA government blowing $3 million on GPS trackers.
  • Vodafone gave the NSW & federal governments “anonymised” location data from its mobile phone network.

Over in the most highly surveilled country in the West, the UK, Boris Johnson’s government is in talks with both telecommunications companies and Google to acquire location data of British citizens. Israel, too, is on board.

Even if one agrees with these measures — which I certainly do not given Australia is relatively untouched by COVID-19 compared to many other countries — the risk is obvious: New powers — and the expansion of existing powers given to the government by the government — being misused in the future by the government is clear. The irony, of course, is that many existing laws are being misused and expanded in the name of COVID-19.

After the Snowden Revelations, we in the West realised that governments have too many surveillance powers. And we realised that there was no justification for such powers. We know that mass surveillance has a negative effect on freedom of speech, the means by which one defends one’s rights. That is, the power and control of government is disproportionate to the risk.

Given Australia’s low coronavirus numbers — both infections and the death rate — my belief is that state & federal governments’ mass surveillance efforts to enforce/monitor “social distancing” is disproportionate.

The disproportionate response is due to The Road to Digital Serfdom — the ever increasing and inevitable cadence of digital freedom being eroded by the state — and the Police State. Note that I do not claim that we live in a Police State, although the current police powers certainly are a step in the wrong direction. My claim is that it’s inevitable for The Road to Digital Serfdom to lead down the path to a Police State.