- 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 <http://www.telegraph.co.uk:80/et?ac=000343180237640&rtmo=lSwuvFFt&atmo=lSwuvFFt
&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
&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