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Will 2019 see people lose more privacy to the state?

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As governments enhance capacity for electronic surveillance, democratic institutions that can protect civil liberties are under attack

A theme of the new year is the possibility of a malign confrontation between the world's greatly enhanced capacity for electronic surveillance and the weakening of democratic control.

The antidote to that risk is democratic spirit and civil freedom - both of which are suffering worldwide.

The world's two most populous states, China and India - together, around 37 per cent of the global population - have rolled out nationwide digital systems of monitoring and classification.

These combine the collection of personal information needed for fuller citizenship with the capacity for fuller surveillance and intervention by the state.

China's system overtly seeks to monitor the behaviour of its 1.4 billion people and to reward those actions the state (read: Communist Party) defines as "good" or punish those it defines as "bad".

The country's "social credit system" combines face, voice and fingerprint recognition technology with monitoring of public and private behaviour such as Internet use, educational choices and social networks, as well as a web of paid informants who report unusual activities.

The Chinese government uses these elements to produce a picture of each person's social, political, professional and private activities - and awards points that aid career and other choices - or punishes anti-social or anti-Party behaviour by depriving citizens of rights, promotions and travel possibilities.

The official description of the system claims that it "will allow the trustworthy to roam freely under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step".

It already assigns rewards and punishments: 2019 is the year in which coverage is aimed to be completed so as to monitor everyone in the country by next year.

India's Aadhaar (foundation in Hindi) national identity card technology aims to be as comprehensive as the Chinese model but is not designed to be as intrusive.

It began as a voluntary initiative, the brainchild of software entrepreneur Nandan Nilekani, who wanted to make "every Indian, no matter how poor or marginalised, visible to the state".

Since last year, it ceased to be a choice in several Indian states, and the ambition is to make it compulsory, with plans to link it to access to needed commodities, higher education, government subsidies and healthcare.

Complaints that Aadhaar breaches the right to privacy are lodged with the courts, and a battle is joined between civil libertarians and the state.

The economist Reetika Khera wrote in The Washington Post in August last year that the system constitutes "one of the most brazen breaches of the right to privacy and the right to live initiated by the government of a democratic country".

Western democracies don't have China-size - or even India-size - digital ambitions.

But in the aftermath of the 2013 publication of documents taken from the US National Security Agency, many of their secret services have been given legal power to monitor all their citizens' communications - though with increased legal safeguards.

The danger is not in the technology.

Mature democracies, whose courts, media outlets and institutions of civil society remain free and vigilant, can ensure that technological use is consonant with the need to counter threats, or secure efficiency in the public sphere.

They can also ensure that debate on the use of technology is robust and that public opinion is heard, and can change policy.

The predictions of democratic failure in the face of authoritarian power will come true only if the public allows it.

The writer co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford.

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