Democratic Citizenship in the Age of Data & Generative AI

May 9, 2023

As someone who has worked in the field of educational technology for years now, I have witnessed personally the truly transformative potential afforded by digital technologies in terms of enhancing information accessibility and endowing students with unprecedented autonomy. But, despite the evident benefits of our current digital era (of which these extend to practically every vertical and industry), I have grown increasingly aware of its negative side effects, namely the destructive use of new technologies by governments and businesses to monitor and influence our lives in unprecedented ways. The truly unprecedented development of digital monitoring, which poses an impending danger to our constitutionally given right to privacy and our ability for political dissent, is of particular concern to the idea of democratic citizenship. We must examine the ways that digital monitoring limits democratic participation in light of these worries, as well as potential solutions to this urgent problem. In particular, this essay will make the case for the establishment of safe online venues for political organization and the acknowledgement of privacy as an inalienable human right. We can enhance the foundations of democratic citizenship and seize the opportunity to put effective solutions into place by addressing these issues as soon as they arise, before it becomes too late.

Government and corporate digital monitoring is on the rise, which threatens democratic citizenship by curtailing individuals' right to privacy and their capacity for political protest. Digital monitoring by the government has been a source of contention ever since the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act in the wake of the September 11th attacks. Concerns were voiced concerning the preservation of personal privacy rights as a result of this act's expansion of the government's capacity to gather and monitor personal data without a warrant. “Distraught over 9/11, Americans, including lawmakers, were more willing to overlook threats to civil liberties allowed by the Patriot Act. However, no matter the threat, democracy requires those civil liberties” (Wadsworth). Further undermining the concept of privacy are the disclosures made by Edward Snowden on the breadth of National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance programs, which revealed that the government was collecting and analyzing massive quantities of data on Americans both at home and abroad. There is a chilling effect on free speech and people' freedom to protest when they are afraid of retaliation or monitoring for voicing their thoughts. According to Barbara K. Redman, a common issue facing both academia and citizenship is the "inadequate protection against this level of retribution and the lack of institutional systems to catch the deceptions whistleblowers sometimes reveal" (Redman). But, businesses are also employing digital monitoring to glean personal information for use in targeted advertising campaigns. An individual's right to privacy and agency over their digital personae may be compromised by the gathering and analysis of such data. This can have repercussions on their purchasing habits and their ability to gain knowledge. Generally speaking, these behaviors undermine private rights and make it harder for individuals to engage in political conversation and dissent, which are serious threats to democratic citizenship. Yet, ideas like privacy as a human right and the significance of civic spaces might help find a solution to this problem by highlighting the need of safeguarding individuals' private data and developing safe online meeting places for political activism.

The widespread use of digital monitoring has concerning consequences for citizens' ability to express dissent and participate in political engagement. This technology can easily be deployed by both corporate entities and governments, allowing them to monitor opposition effectively or even suppress it completely. In terms of governmental surveillance, activists involved with politics as well as journalists have been unfairly singled out which goes against the principles that underpin democratic citizenships. In multiple instances, the US government has said to have implemented this kind of widespread surveillance on Black Lives Matter campaigners in addition to ecologists who protest environmentally unfriendly activities (Lee and Chin).

In a similar manner, the surveillance conducted by corporations has the potential to restrict opposing views as it allows employers and businesses to keep track of their workers' and customers' activities. Digital monitoring tools are employed by many companies for tracing employee effectiveness, communication patterns, or even non-work related pursuits which could be utilized against labor union campaigns in workplaces. To illustrate this point further, Amazon has been found guilty of scrutinizing worker interactions with each other so that they can recognize and discourage any unity efforts while some firms have used data collection techniques on whistleblowers or critics intentionally causing them damage through retaliation. This sort of atmosphere creates reluctance among employees who become hesitant about voicing opinions out loud due to fears around being singled out for oppositional behavior leading up-to job loss situations eventually. Also noteworthy is how extensive data compilation practices impact consumer advocacy since such information affords businesses an opportunity at manipulating public opinion based off customer preferences & interests; thus undermining accountability proceedings aimed towards curbing negative corporate behaviors within society - examples abound from social media platforms algorithmic manipulation methods that elevate certain messages whilst suppressing others significantly altering societal discourses surrounding vital topics covering politics or various pertinent issues.

Governments and corporations increasingly using digital surveillance creates a hurdle in maintaining democratic citizenship. However, recognizing privacy as an essential human right while emphasizing civic spaces can overcome this challenge. It emphasizes the need to secure personal information and create safe online areas for political engagement. Privacy qualifies as a crucially fundamental principle under international human rights law like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which guarantee citizens freedom of speech, assembly, dissent without undue supervision through strong legal safeguarding measures. Policy makers should respect citizen's main privileges by balancing national security demands with corporate interests when enacting robust data protection regulations such as General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) enforced within European Union contributing transparency accountability control over access to Personal Information helping them manage its release judiciously ensuring better outcomes while preserving individual liberties out rightly unequivocally unconditionally.

Renee DiResta's "Democracy: Fixing It Is Up to Us" stresses the vital role played by individuals in safeguarding democracy. This includes having critical discussions about digital privacy and advocating for policy reform. In a similar vein, in "The Coup We're Not Talking About" Shoshana Zuboff underscores that surveillance practices which undermine democratic values must be challenged as we do not speak enough on it currently. In light of this discussion, civil society organizations and grassroots movements play an important part in creating awareness around privacy concerns by fostering civic spaces where citizens can share their thoughts transparently with one another regarding these issues through secure communication tools provided within digital commons platforms. This could also be combined with promoting online activism anonymously and sharing information securely amongst groups of people without any fear or chilling effect created due to constant observation from external forces (using various secure platforms). Individuals should empower themselves with sufficient knowledge so they may make informed choices concerning online behavior whilst remaining vigilant towards potential threats posed against them digitally.

The Chinese government's use of technology to monitor and control the Uighur minority in Xinjiang is a striking example of how digital monitoring threatens democratic citizenship. This case shows how digital spying may damage democracy and the relevance of privacy rights and civic places. The Chinese government monitors Uighur populations in Xinjiang using facial recognition, phone monitoring, and personal data. This extensive surveillance has enabled Uighur persecution, including arbitrary arrest in "reeducation camps," religious and cultural restrictions, and dissent repression. In an effort to mute criticism of its Xinjiang policies, especially from the United Nations' Human Rights Council, China has also invited numerous diplomats to visit the region. Despite this, the international community has taken a strong stand against the Chinese government’s mistreatment of the Uighur minority, signifying its commitment to prioritizing human rights (Blanchard). By evaluating this case, specifically under the lens of course topics like the digital public square and technology and citizenship, we may better comprehend how surveillance tools can be weaponized against vulnerable communities, eroding democratic norms and denying basic human rights. According to our discussions, the digital public square is a place for citizens to discuss politics, ideas, and social concerns. Nevertheless, in Xinjiang, the widespread monitoring apparatus has obliterated any Uighur digital public square. The Chinese government's control over the internet and surveillance of online communications have hampered free speech and political participation because people fear repercussions.

Technology may empower and disempower populations. From WIRED's "Inside China’s Surveillance Crackdown on Uyghurs": local police target the Uyghur Muslims with a state of surveillance lockdown, for their messaging, words, and movement, which is monitored for their extremist potential. Likewise, Foreign Policy's "Chinese Surveillance Grows Beyond Xinjiang": recounts a similar account of an unexpected police inspection of a small language school, with non-Chinese attendees checked for their visas. Technology used to watch and control Uighurs in Xinjiang has disenfranchised them by restricting their rights to free expression, assembly, and privacy, limiting their capacity to participate in democratic processes and fight for reform. This case emphasizes the necessity for legislative privacy rights and secure internet places where individuals can voice criticism without fear. This case study provides important democratic citizenship lessons. First, unrestrained digital surveillance may undermine democracy and violate human rights. Second, societies must preserve privacy rights and civic spaces, both real and digital, to allow political conversation and activism without fear of persecution. Ultimately, this case study warns other nations to carefully assess digital monitoring and balance national security considerations with democratic citizenship and human rights. Digital monitoring threatens democracy in China's Uighur people. This case and this course's themes can help us grasp the relevance of privacy rights and safe digital environments in sustaining a dynamic and inclusive democracy.

This growing use of digital monitoring by businesses and governments poses a serious danger to democratic citizenship since it impairs people's rights to privacy and their freedom to voice their opinions. By analyzing the effects of governmental and corporate monitoring tactics on privacy rights and the ability of individuals to express their disagreement, we have investigated how digital surveillance has impacted citizenship. We have also highlighted potential solutions to this problem by highlighting the necessity of protecting personal information and the construction of safe digital spaces for political organization by using notions such as privacy as a fundamental human right and the significance of civic spaces. Examining the Uighur community in China has shown that it is crucial to uphold democratic norms as technology advances. This example also emphasizes how detrimental unregulated digital surveillance can be, and we have gained understanding about the importance of protecting individual rights and public spaces for creating an inclusive democracy that thrives.

As the future of citizenship takes shape, it is imperative that nations strike a balance between safeguarding fundamental human rights and democratic values whilst also protecting security and corporate interests. To tackle challenges presented by digital surveillance, citizens, policymakers, and civil society must pool their resources to develop innovative solutions using key insights from this course. By acting in concert with each other they can ensure continued forward momentum toward progress and change within the framework of democratic governance amidst an ever-more connected technological landscape. This necessitates ongoing research efforts as well as active discussion surrounding these issues if we are to defend our basic tenets of democracy against any threats posed by rapidly-evolving technology.

Works Cited

“Snowden and Institutional Corruption: What Have We Learned?” n.d.

Digitalcommons@usu, Digitalcommons@usu, and Madison Wadsworth. 2020. “The Patriot Act: How It Hurts Democracy the Patriot Act: How It Hurts Democracy.”

Chin, Nicol Turner Lee and Caitlin. 2022. “Police Surveillance and Facial Recognition: Why Data Privacy Is an Imperative for Communities of Color.” Brookings. April 7, 2022.

Staff, WIRED. 2019. “Inside China’s Surveillance Crackdown on Uyghurs.” WIRED. WIRED. May 9, 2019.

Cook, Emile Dirks, Sarah. n.d. “China’s Surveillance State Has Tens of Millions of New Targets.” Foreign Policy. Accessed March 20, 2023.

©joseph semrai 2023

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