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Friday, January 13, 2017

The Surveillance State Seen through a ‘Black Mirror’

Is death-by-tweet really so farfetched?

The Netflix series, Black Mirror, has garnered a great deal of attention recently for its Twilight Zone feel which leaves many viewers both slightly disturbed and intrigued. Complete with the same bizarre plot twists that Twilight Zone provided to older generations, some of the episodes of Black Mirror are rather shocking, to say the least. However, while shock value definitely seems to be a primary goal of the series, each episode has deep underlying themes which often include a healthy dose of skepticism when it comes to government intervention in a technology-driven world.

Permanent Bans

As soon as these victims are marked with the “death to” hashtag on social media, they end up dead within 24 hours.

“Hated in the Nation,” [spoiler warning] is one of the most compelling, albeit deeply unsettling, episodes currently streaming on Netflix. Set in the not-so-distant future, the episode focuses on a society where social media and cutting-edge technology dominate daily life. Much like the present day, these modern conveniences are used to spread gossip and hate more often than news or information.

The story begins as a team of investigators is left scrambling to solve a series of similarly bizarre murders which keep occurring every 24 hours. While each murder is equally as peculiar as the next, the only aspect each of the victims has in common is that each has recently been the target of extreme social media criticism after committing acts regarded as socially unfavorable.

Whether it was a tasteless comment made about a disabled individual or an inappropriate picture that outraged the masses, as soon as these victims are marked with the “death to” hashtag on social media, they end up dead within 24 hours.

Stinging Tweets

As the murders continue, the investigators begin noticing a common occurrence at each crime scene: bees.

In this futuristic world, bees have become extinct and have been replaced with robotic bees which are programmed to function just as real bees would. The creators of these bees are cleared from any suspicion after it is discovered that the bees have been hacked by an unknown perpetrator who has programmed the bees to attack and kill whoever receives the most #deathto tweets within a 24-hour period.

Once you allow backdoors, you make devices vulnerable to hackers whose motives may be even worse than the government itself.

However, the real twist comes when the audience discovers that this hacking was only made possible because of enhanced government surveillance.

In response to growing threats both from its citizens and abroad, this fictional government mandated that all technology be built with a “back door,” giving the state access to any and all electronic devices, robot bees included.

A Dark Reflection

If this sounds strangely familiar it is because it is exactly what our own United States government has been doing over the last several years. Thanks to Edward Snowden, we are now painfully aware of the government’s overreach in the technological sector, including its demand that technology be built with a backdoor available for its own personal use.

However, as the episode perfectly demonstrates, once you allow backdoors to be placed in electronics, you make those devices vulnerable to hackers whose motives may be even worse than the government itself.

As it turns out, a young hacker committed to making a social statement about society’s obsession with public shaming, has hacked hundreds of thousands of bees which are triggered by the hashtag and then used to attack and kill. However, the plot as escalates when, instead of attacking those who are the target of public shame the bees are used to attack and kill every individual who has engaged in social media shaming, which results in mass deaths across the country.

At the end of the episode, the government is left lamenting what has happened, and wondering if, perhaps its surveillance state was responsible for the deaths of its citizenry.

While we may not have robotic bees attacking Twitter trolls in real life, this fictional demonstration of government overreach is not so farfetched. As our government continues to expand its surveillance state, many Americans are left wondering if we are in fact, less safe as a result.

  • Brittany is a writer for the Pacific Legal Foundation. She is a co-host of “The Way The World Works,” a Tuttle Twins podcast for families.