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Orwell did not guess the worse half of it


By Scott Bradner, Network World, 02/27/06


It has become a clichˇ to bring up George Orwell's 1948 book 1984 when talking about the ever-increasing pervasiveness of governments monitoring the activities of their citizens in the name of security. But Orwell's apocalyptic picture of a quiet dehumanization missed entirely the most important threat to our privacy and sense of being.


Orwell painted a picture of a world where government has the ability to monitor everyone, everywhere: Individuals never know when they are under surveillance, so tend always to act as if they are.


The most recent reason to invoke Orwell was presented by Harold Hurtt, chief of police in Houston, who suggested that police-run surveillance cameras in public places did not go far enough and [said] that owners of malls and large apartment complexes should be required to install such cameras as well. If that was not enough to set off us civil-liberties types, he also said that in some cases surveillance cameras should be set up to monitor private residences.


Hurtt proposed expanding the number of police-run surveillance cameras to help deal with a shortage of police officers. It is hard to argue that it would not make things easier for the police if they could record everything everyone did and could track robbers back to when they took the gun used in a robbery out from under the bedroom pillow in the morning. Not the kind of world I'd like to live in, but more convenient for the police.


As one might expect, the chief dismissed any privacy concern by saying, "If you are not doing anything wrong, why should you worry about it?"


This response has been used recently by the Bush administration in defense of the National Security Agency wiretapping and one that emphasizes the disconnect between the viewers and the viewed. My guess is that almost no one who says this would be happy to have the tables turned to let citizens watch politicians' private lives.


What Orwell did not figure out is that most places - including most of the places Hurtt wants to monitor - are already under watch. It is hard to walk more than a few feet inside a mall or major corporate building without being recorded by a security camera. Many homeowners have installed security or nanny cameras. We are recorded in many - soon, maybe most - places we go.


More pervasive are corporate databases that record everything you buy, read or do. Phone companies and automatic toll systems know where you go, Google and Yahoo know what you want to look at, The New York Times and other online news sources know what you read, and your local market knows what you want to eat. In the future, RFIDs will make this data collection and linkage easier (a view of that future).


Orwell missed the fact that much of the privacy threat would come from the private sector, where there are few meaningful, legally mandated controls. It will be up to government, however, to decide if we need to accept the current fact that we have no privacy and have to "get over it."


Disclaimer: Harvard, like other schools, does have laws protecting privacy, at least for students. But the above call for more rules is mine, not the university's.


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