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Orwell did not guess the worst half of it


By Scott Bradner


It has become a cliche 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 the government has the ability to monitor everyone everywhere. (  Individuals never know when they are actually under surveillance so tend to always act as of they were.


The most recent reason to invoke Orwell was presented by the Chief of Police in Huston Texas who suggested that police run surveillance cameras in public places did not go far enough and came up with the idea that the owners of malls and large apartment complexes should be required to install such cameras as well.  If that was not enough to set us civil liberties types off, Chief Harold Hurtt said that in some cases surveillance cameras should be set up to monitor private residences.


Chief Hurtt said he was proposing to expand the number of police run surveillance cameras to help deal with what he said was 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 be able to track a robber back to when he (or she) took the gun used in a robbery out from under their bedroom pillow in the morning.  Not the kind of world I'd like to live in but much more convenient for the police (and the voyeurs, blackmailers, thieves and politicians that might also get access).


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 is a common response, one that has been recently used by the Bush administration in defense of the NSA 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 the citizens to watch what the politicians private lives.


What Orwell did not figure out is that most places, including most of the places that Chief Hurtt wants to monitor are already being monitored.  It is hard to walk more than a few feet inside most malls or major corporate buildings without being recorded by one "security" camera or another.  Many homeowners have installed nanny or security cameras in their own homes.  We are recorded in many, soon maybe most, places we go.  


But what is much more pervasive are the endless corporate databases that record everything you buy, read or do.  Phone companies and automatic toll systems know where you go, Google or Yahoo knows what you want to look at, the New York Times and other on-line 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. (See for 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.  But it will be up to government 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 we have to follow, at least for students, but the above call for more rules is mine not the university's.