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Technological Innovations Help Dictators See All


That brings us to our next story: the potential for governments - from dictatorships to democracies - to exploit technology to spy on their own citizens. John Villasenor is a fellow at the Brookings Institution, and he's written a paper on how governments may soon be able to record much of what is said or done within their borders - every phone conversation, electronic message, Facebook post, tweet and video from every street corner - and then store that information indefinitely.

John joins us now from member station KQED in San Francisco, to talk more about this phenomenon. Hi, John. Welcome to the program.

JOHN VILLASENOR: Thank you very much for having me.

MARTIN: So this is a disturbing idea - that a government, particularly an authoritarian government, could access so much information about a person. And you say this has to do with the cost of storing this kind of information; it's getting cheaper?

VILLASENOR: Yes. So storage costs, as many people know, have been dropping for quite some time. But what is perhaps less widely appreciated is how fast they've been dropping, and how much they've dropped. It is now - for example - possible to store everything that someone says on a telephone for a year, for about 17 cents. So as these storage costs plummet, it all of a sudden becomes possible to actually archive it all. And that's what's changing. We're crossing these thresholds now and in the coming couple of years.

MARTIN: Give us some real-world examples. How could this play out in a country like Syria?

VILLASENOR: Well, in countries like Syria, there's no reason to expect that governments won't take advantage of every possible technological tool at their disposal to monitor their citizenry. Smartphones, and the apps that run on smartphones, very often track location in an authoritarian country. Governments could presumably get access to that information. About $50 worth of storage could store the information identifying the location of each of 1 million people to within 15 feet at five-minute intervals, 24 hours a day for a full year. And so if you took a country like 15 million people, then that means it would cost about only $750 to store all of their movements for a year.


VILLASENOR: License plate cameras - these are basically roadside cameras - or in some cases, they are mounted inside police cars - that automatically take a picture, or take an image of the license plate, of every vehicle that passes in the field of view of the camera. And they store those. They raise very significant privacy concerns, but it should also be said that they have been responsible for solving some very serious crimes as well. And they are proliferating it - all over the world.

The United Kingdom has a very large network; they're being used in Toronto; New York has a network. And they build these enormous databases. And so you can expect, in fact, that when you go out in your car to run an errand that, you know, you are tracked - or will be soon, in the next couple of years - tracked by any number of license plate cameras. And that will go into some big database someday and, you know, somebody can look at it if they want.

MARTIN: John Villasenor is a fellow at the Brookings Institution. We caught up with him from member station KQED in San Francisco. John, thanks so much for talking with us.

VILLASENOR: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.