Not Just Big Brother -
We're All Watching You
Fifty years ago this week, a bizarre and terrifying new novel went on sale in bookshops across the world. George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four caught the imagination of millions, and in the process catapaulted "Big Brother" into the international lexicon. For socialists and libetarians alike, the phrase became short-hand for the power of the state, and the fear of intrusion by authority.
For the digital generation, large computer systems have begun to represent the all-seeing, all-knowing Big Brother. An adult in the developed world is located, on average, in 300 databases. As these converge with the telecommunications spectrum, nearly everyone becomes entangled in a web of surveillance enveloping everything from bank accounts to email.
Nineteen Eighty-Four made no reference to intrusion by the private sector, but it certainly made the point that government had the potential to eliminate all rights and freedoms. Recent revelations about the activities of spy agencies (see < &pg=/et/99/6/10/ecfstasi10.html"Springtime for spies and cops" only heighten our fears.
Orwell may not have meant Nineteen Eighty-Four to be quite so prophetic about the evils of technology. But to millions of people, Big Brother is a chilling warning about the creation of a surveillance society through IT. And though superficially, Orwell got it wrong - 1984 came and went with many of our freedoms apparently intact - a closer reading of the book reveals that we're nearer to Big Brother than we might imagine.
CCTV has become the most obvious parallel between the book and present-day Britain. In Orwell's fictional Oceania, a mass of "telescreens", complete with microphones and speakers, watched over every square inch of public and private space. These devices, centrally monitored, began their life as public information systems, and ended up policing citizens' morals, thoughts and behaviour - and enforcing the will of the state.
Compare this with the present day, where hundreds of thousands of cameras have been placed into buses, trains, lifts and even phone booths. Many people now expect to be routinely filmed from the moment they leave the front gate. Hidden cameras - once frowned on - are now being installed unhindered in cinemas, police helmets, pubs, and changing rooms; in the space of 15 years, we've come to perceive CCTV as a benign, integral part of the urban environment.
Soon, people will expect spy technology to be engineered into all forms of architecture and design. It is, perhaps, only a matter of time before legal and community pressures force the cameras into our homes. Those who instinctively support the idea of CCTV may reject this hypothesis, but the bigger picture is indisputable. Nineteen Eighty-Four was all about the integration of the state with private life - a process which in many respects modern Britain apes.
Surveillance has become a "value added" element of IT systems. Systems architects are required to design technology that will capture, analyse and present personal information. Accordingly, the workplace is fast becoming a surveillance zone. Employees in call centres and IT-based companies are routinely monitored and profiled by "electronic supervisors" that analyse their performance rates, lavatory breaks and personal activities.
The data used to these ends is freely available because we are routinely entrapped into handing over our data. Dozens of laws force us to disclose personal information for TV licensing or the electoral register, which local government, for example, or credit agencies then use for unrelated purposes.
Surveillance by government, more significantly, sits at the core of our entire communications systems. Telecoms companies are required by law to ensure their equipment is "wiretap-friendly". All governments assume the right to eavesdrop on every email message and international phone call. Intelligence agencies have for years been vetting and analysing countless phone calls and messages without needing a warrant.
These trends would not be so dangerous if government and citizens were working on a level playing field, but they are not. Governments actively prevent us from protecting our privacy. The British and American governments have pursued a campaign to impede the use of privacy technologies such as encryption. More worrying is the widespread practice within government of promoting or requiring technologies such as key escrow, which allow "back door" access.
And like the government Orwell portrayed - its propaganda arm known as the "Ministry of Truth" - ours routinely uses obverse words and images to create a false reality. Today, the Department of Trade and Industry and its American counterparts consistently promote Escrow, Trusted Third Party (TTP) programmes and other privacy-hostile initiatives, including the discredited "Clipper chip" proposal, as if they were privacy-friendly technologies.
Privacy and data protection laws, too, are frequently used as instruments not to protect rights, but to mandate surveillance. Britain's Data Protection Act provides the most dangerous forms of privacy invasion with legal sanctuary. The state can do more or less as it pleases with our data in the name of law enforcement, public interest or national security.
Both the DPA and the new Freedom of Information Bill, in theory, give us the right to secure a range of information. In reality, the process is often costly, cumbersome, or a complete waste of time. A recent attempt by the Foundation for Information Policy Research in London to discover information about government encryption proposals took six months, and resulted in a refusal by the DTI to disclose any documents whatever. Under the new FOI Bill, government is permitted to create exemptions from disclosure on the spur of the moment - even after it receives an application.
And when the European Parliament recently passed laws purportedly to protect us from junk email, rather than outlawing the practice, it requires us to register with the Direct Marketing Association if we object to the practice.
The world of Nineteen Eighty-Four had completely eliminated anonymity - a process replicated in many countries today. We are obliged through an increasing number of laws and technologies to disclose our identity. Refusal to give your details often results in denial of service, or even prosecution. Earlier this year, privacy campaigners revealed < &pg=/et/99/1/28/ecnintel28.htmlIntel's Pentium III chip has an ID number capable of tracking the registered owner's movements on the Internet.
But the nightmare vision of Big Brother could only be achieved if every entity - citizen, state and corporation - worked in partnership for an alleged "common good", if everyone became agents of the state. It does not require much imagination to see such a trend. Citizens and businesses are routinely made partners in surveillance. When industry recently refused to support the governments escrow proposals, it was required by Downing Street to discover a way for the authorities to eavesdrop on communications.
This is the crux of the Big Brother nightmare. The trends and patterns Orwell identified are frighteningly real. If they continue, our children may not be in a position to celebrate the book's centenary.