“(A man) lives from birth to death under the eye of the thought police. Even when he is alone he can never be sure that he is alone. Wherever he may be, asleep or awake, working or resting, in his bath or in bed, he can be inspected with no warning and without knowledge that he is being inspected. His friendships, relaxations, behaviour towards wife and children, the expressions of his face when alone, the words he mutters when asleep even the movements of his body are all scrutinised. Not only misdemeanour, but any eccentricity, however small (…) will be detected.” This is an excerpt from George Orwell’s book 1984. It describes a totalitarian future, in which humanity is manipulated and dictated by a surveillance state government. He tells the story of a gentleman who lives his life in fear and by habit to minimise the risk of having a ‘dangerous’ opinion that contradicts the parties view and is therefore a reason for his extermination.
This is of course fiction and an extreme circumstance, but it appears that governments around the world including the US, and the British, are growing ever closer to a system where freedom is no longer, and Orwell’s world is a reality. “
Big Brother Google is watching.”
Technology is taking over our lives – every waking moment we are surrounded by digital devices. According to The Independent, a third of smartphone owners check their mobiles within five minutes of waking up and I know first hand how after a week without my laptop while I waited for its repair, my life was disrupted without it. Laptops and smartphones have become a fundamental part of people’s everyday routines, whether for work, or play.
However, laptops and smartphones are just the beginning. We are entering the era of the “Internet of Things”, where formerly ‘dumb’ objects are becoming perceptive and communicative machines. These will be in the form of household products and ‘wearables’ and their number is projected to be between 24 and 75 billion by 2020 (Mertins, 2014).
In the home they aim to run our lives more efficiently by making smart decisions on their own. Google’s Nest Protect is a smoke detector that shuts down the boiler if carbon monoxide is detected. Thermostats can adjust room temperature when the homeowner approaches the house or leaves it, and lighting can even ‘learn’ which lights go on and off and when, to create the illusion to passers by that there are people in the house – even when it is not occupied (Mintel, 2014).
On our bodies they will offer knowledge and self-analysis. Google Glass will offer the user a wealth of knowledge from the internet in the form of augmented reality. Tshirts will have textile-embedded sensors which “measure heart rate, respiration rate, (…) dehydration and stress levels” (Mertins, 2014). Furthermore there are prototypes of mind-controlled flying drones at the University of Minnesota, which are controlled by thought.
Smart devices like these will soon be in everyone’s homes and on everybody’s’ person, and we will become dependent on them just as we have our mobile phones and laptops.
On face value the Internet of Things seems amazing, however, it appears that it could have a darker backbone, shielded by the glamour of technology. With constant monitoring and analysis during every aspect of their lives people who buy into ‘connected living’ will have to be prepared to sacrifice freedom and privacy in the name of convenience and comfort, as their data is collected and stored by central technology companies.
Even mild data (i.e. sleeping patterns) is personal information and together along with vast sets of other data can still be analysed to paint a picture. For this reason security agencies have been keeping surveillance on people’s internet use for several years, with the intentions of foreseeing terrorist activity and ending it materialises. Most prominent is NSA (America’s National Security Agency), which according to the BBC uses a system called Prism to ‘mine’ US websites including Microsoft, Skype, Facebook and most worryingly of all Google – the creators of Google Glass and Nest.
This however, was occurring unnoticed until June 2013, when whistle-blower Edward Snowden (formally of the CIA) presented top-secret documents that showed warrantless government surveillance by NSA and GCHQ (British Government Communication Headquarters). Just this week the trial against GCHQ ended and they were found to have been performing these activities secret but allowed to continue as long as they did so openly. This was because their activities were based on indirectly procuring data from NSA, which after the 9/11 terrorist attacks made surveillance of its citizens and foreigners legal in the US under the ‘Patriot Act’.
This has led to outrage amongst organisations globally, including Liberty, who believe that simply being ‘more transparent’ in their dealings with NSA is not enough to make GCHQ lawful and so threaten to challenge the decision at the European Court of Human Rights. Amnesty International too are fighting against the government’s acceptance to legally “read (people’s) private emails and remotely turn on their computer’s camera or microphone to secretly record their activities” as they believe it is against both article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the right to privacy, and Article 10, which protects freedom of expression.
Some believe that “If you haven’t done anything wrong, you have nothing to fear.” However, Stanford University point out that by collecting an archive of important data, it becomes vulnerable to abuse by trusted insiders. For example in 2007, when special agent Benjamin Robinson was indicted for using a government database for tracking the travel patterns of an ex-girlfriend and her family and was found to have used the system 163 times before being caught. Additionally, they point out that allowing surveillance of one form even limited in scope encourages government to expand such surveillance programs in the future. Biomemetics as a prime example has expanded immensely and already led from fingerprints to a shift in discussion towards DNA collection.
Every form of digital communication is accessible today by either the NSA or the GCHQs questionable techniques. Ackerman, of wired.com after an interview with CIA director David Petraeus wrote “All those new online devices are a treasure trove of data if you’re a ‘person of interest’ to the spy community. With the rise of the “smart home,” you’d be sending tagged, geolocated data” straight to the hands of these agencies.
No doubt the convenience of connected devices will succeed, so we will have to continue to fight for privacy and human rights (and forgo security) or, accept that it is a reality that in a society where national security is the main concern of governments, privacy will likely be a thing of the past and they will have the final instrument for a total surveillance state.
If we accept that privacy is a thing of the past, I guess we have two potential futures, the first ideal is that the government remains ‘our protector’ and honours the idea that the use of invasive operations should be minimised to the most righteous of reasons, and not simply as mass surveillance. Or the second, where people effectively become a tool of surveillance, a ‘spy for the state’, allowing the monitoring of not only themselves, but also their friends and family, with devices that capture everything from their movements, to their thoughts. If this occurred, again, one could possibly live as normal – providing you pose no risk to national security. But, if governments change, or their policies become more radical and even the idea of an alternate opinion is a threat to them this could destroy families and lead to a world much like that of 1984, where we “live from birth to death under the eye of the thought police”.