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Digital Storage, a Dictator's Delight

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We know that ever-more sophisticated digital surveillance tools allow oppressive governments to keep an eye on what dissidents are saying, tweeting or typing. But authoritarian regimes from China to Iran will soon have a new and even more dangerous weapon: the ability to permanently store everything that everyone within their borders does online.

In a new paper for the Brookings Institution, UCLA electrical engineering professor John Villasenor calculates that if the cost of digital storage continues to drop at its current rate (think about how $6 can buy you a flash drive with more memory than most computers had just a few years ago), in the very near future, "it will become technologically and financially feasible for authoritarian governments to record nearly everything that is said or done within their borders—every phone conversation, electronic message, social media interaction, the movements of nearly every person and vehicle, and video from every street corner."

That has major implications, writes Villasenor: "These enormous databases of captured information will create what amounts to a surveillance time machine, enabling state security services to retroactively eavesdrop on people in the months and years before they were designated as surveillance targets."

Frankly, it's not just overseas democracy activists that ought to be worried by all this. America's own National Security Agency is right now hard at work on the biggest electronic spying center the country has ever seen. What's it for? As one official involved told Wired magazine: “Everybody’s a target; everybody with communication is a target.”