Escalation of Surveillance Threatens Right to Anonymity

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The Biden administration has pressured big tech social media platforms to advance its policies in areas like cultural debates, climate interventions, and to stifle dissent on COVID.

“[W]e want every platform to continue doing more to call out … mis- and disinformation while also uplifting accurate information,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in February during the Joe Rogan Spotify flap. Biden himself proclaimed in January: “I make a special appeal to social media companies and media outlets: Please deal with the misinformation and disinformation that’s on your shows. It has to stop.”

In the public square, eruptions over misinformation and disinformation continue, most recently with liberal influencers employed by billionaires “panicked” over another billionaire’s (Elon Musk) pursuit of Twitter, while conservatives take a peculiar comfort in the prospect.  

One can find arguments by both left and right that they are the ones, not the other, discriminated against by social media. Some even argue “tech companies don’t care about politics.” If any of this were all there was to it, it’d be no problem. But in the “Build Back Better” era, there is ever more overlap between business and government. That makes government pressure of social media more of a problem than it would normally be.

This is the era of “Equity Action Plans,” the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and the looming Bipartisan Innovation Act. From buildout of broadband to charging stations to hundreds of billions in federal procurement annually, the dominant policy thrust today is to make the tech sector, and others, more pliant to central government visions, not shine as exemplars of the “capitalism” Joe Biden claimed to favor in Greensboro this week.

This pressuring of social media companies coincides with two other signature features of this administration: a) sweeping “whole-of-government” regulatory campaigns in “Equity,” “Climate Crisis, “Competition Policy,” and “Long Covid;” and b) an increasing normalization of surveillance throughout society.

This escalation of creative and pervasive surveillance is part of a broader and longer running war on anonymity that the pandemic helped globalize, so we can’t solely blame Biden. Early in the pandemic, the Trump administration’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention instructed states to submit personal information—including names, birth dates, ethnicity, and addresses—of individuals vaccinated against COVID-19, raising alarms over a federal vaccine registry.

But Biden’s proclivity for federalizing so much of Americans’ affairs raises the stakes. A newly established forum is being made available at the Department of Justice for snitches to inform the federal government about “anti-competitive” behavior.

Below, in no particular order, are some developments undermining privacy and anonymity that emerged, or reemerged, in 2021.

  • The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) will require third-party payment processors like PayPal or Venmo to report individual transaction flows of $600 or more. As the Motley Fool put it, “If You Make $600 or More From Your Side Hustle in 2022, the IRS Will Know About It.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell complained that “ordinary Americans” will be caught up in the “IRS Dragnet.” McConnell, however, is no opponent of the PATRIOT Act surveillance that made the IRS move a logical extension of increased government power.
  • In a December 2021 letter to one U.S. Senator in response to a query regarding “IRS authority to conduct compliance activity related to virtual currency,” the IRS declared, “We share your concern that virtual currencies can be used to evade compliance, and that the anonymous nature of virtual currencies may make them attractive for those who would engage in illicit activities.” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), in an interview on NPR, called for ending anonymity, implying that the only crypto acceptable is where vendors adhere to a “know your customer” rule.
  • Nextgov reported that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued request for proposals to “incorporate biometric technologies to monitor employees’ health and ‘psychosocial information’ in an effort to ‘optimize ‘human performance and resiliency’ among the workforce.” That can apply to ordinary businesses and their workforces. DHS obviously already incorporates, andseeks additional, biometric collection and use in other respects. 
  • Biden and Trump alike shared an interest in gun regulations and background checks that advance tracking. Trump sought to respond to threats of gun violence via the monitoring and tracking of individuals with mental illness or suspected of such, via smartphones and wearable health-monitoring devices. Similarly, and announcing“this Administration will not wait for Congress to act,”the Biden Justice Department is trying to influence states by publishing model “red flag” legislation to allow not just families but law enforcement to “petition for a court order temporarily barring people in crisis from accessing firearms if they present a danger to themselves or others.” In Biden’s case, a new requirement that licensed dealers who sell firearms to the general public “must certify that they have available secure gun storage or safety devices” available for purchase also. Alongside this, federal databases of gun owners have expanded dramatically in the past year.

The above is just a sampling of recent escalations in surveillance in an increasingly online world. As Biden’s promises to leverage procurement to implement his agenda illustrate, hefty government departments adopt hefty programs that apply to contractors—and then trickle down. The loss of anonymity heralds more de-platforming for those who fail to get with the program, whether or not Elon Musk buys Twitter.

Deplatforming is typically thought of as happen online in cyberspace but increasingly offline. The Canadian truckers’ separation from their money was one instance. Another non-cyber example, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, requires that future vehicles incorporate a “safety device” that will “passively monitor the performance of a driver of a motor vehicle to accurately identify whether that driver may be impaired.” Some have called this a “kill switchfor vehicles; at the very least it points to new surveillance and the increasing impossibility of anonymity in the automated “smart city” if policy does not change.

The fusion of business, government, and surveillance warn us of the likelihood of pushbutton regulation from a distance or helicopter government, unless authorities are stopped before it is too late.

The ability to remotely disable a vehicle is not new, of course; the question is over who does it and when. The bipartisan infrastructure law is not the first time the notion of a kill switch has been brought to the fore with respect to technology, but these newer developments have emerged in an era in which authorities are plainly enthusiastic about increased surveillance from tax collection to newfangled environmental stewardship via “satellites, sensors, and AI.” Recent Senate document declassifications show U.S. intelligence agencies continue bulk data collections and mishandling of American’s private information.

Anonymity and the tools enabling it—including the ability to spread so-called misinformation online—are about enabling those engaged in peaceful and legitimate protest to do so without being outed. They’re about preserving pathways out of oppression and bad policies. Federal pressure on tech companies to adhere to and propagate govenment prescriptions and prejudices—no matter from which party—are increasingly toxic to liberty.