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ANALYSIS: The Year State Surveillance Matters Again

Nov. 4, 2019, 11:33 AM

Are you sick of data privacy headlines? Take a deep breath, then, because the global economy, legal and privacy industries, and consumers are still swimming in them. In the six years after Edward Snowden shared details about the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs with journalists from The Guardian, most conversations focused on state surveillance of private citizens, but mass collection of data by large Internet platforms has dominated more recent discussions. 2020 may be the year the conversation turns back towards state actors.

Data collection-focused companies had a rough 2019 as they adjusted business practices to comply with a web of data security and privacy requirements—from catching up with implementation requirements for the EU General Data Protection Regulation to racing to prepare for the California Consumer Privacy Act, among other obligations. Revelations of Cambridge Analytica’s mining of Facebook profile data to support political campaigns on both sides of the Atlantic fueled negative public sentiment against mass data collection and sharpened the public’s awareness of data privacy issues. The extent to which new privacy regimes will impact the activities of private companies is still unclear, but what is clear is that these laws do not target state actors or pseudo-state actors that do not monetize the data they collect.

One of the most comprehensive surveillance programs in the world is run by the Chinese government. Developed in the three decades after students protested at Tiananmen Square and during a time of sweeping technological changes, the program benefited from advances in computing and storage and from the emergence of machine learning and data analytics tools for efficiently processing the data. The arrival of smart phones and other connected devices obviated the need to plant microphones and tracking devices on citizens. This surveillance apparatus has already had an impact on residents in the forms of suppression of minorities and dissidents and the development of active measures to evade identification.

China’s response to the latest round of protests in Hong Kong may prove to be a turning point in international perception of—and attention to—its policies. Any demonstration of technology-assisted repression outside of China will catalyze public debates over government surveillance programs.

Those debates may also echo across the U.S.-based corporate Big Tech model that American consumers do not generally associate with government-run tracking. Data collection and surveillance tools are embedded in household, education, work, policing, social and entertainment media systems. Will we know when corporate-backed surveillance technology has become part of a nation-governed data-collection and -processing ecosystem?

Read about other trends our analysts are following as part of our Bloomberg Law 2020 series.