But, that was fiction, wasn’t it?

October 17, 2008

In this post, I talked about Cory Doctorow’s fiction book Little Brother.  I briefly mentioned the excessive surveillance implemented by the government as a result of an event that occurred in the book. However, the focus of that post wasn’t the surveillance, but that any system can be designed in such a way that the designer cannot break it.

I think that is still a valid point, but let’s look at the issue of excessive surveillance today.  In the book, everybody in the San Francisco area is essentially watched all the time.  Through tracking of how people move around via public transit id cards, to the laptops provided to students at school which monitor and report on the students online activities, to spending patterns based on credit and debit card usage and through the the populace itself.

The government has convinced a large portion of the populace that this level of daily scrutiny is for their own good.  It is necessary so that the terrorists can be caught. Furthermore, it is the people’s responsibility to report suspicious activity.  We are talking about a situation in which essentially all rights to privacy have been suspended. Now, in Little Brother, this is only occurring in the San Francisco area because of a terrorist attack.

In this post, I talk about a mini-series being aired in the United States right now by PBS called “The Last Enemy.”  In this fictional program, we have moved beyond a locality being under constant watch.  The entire United Kingdom is being watched by a program called T.I.A or Total Information Awareness.  T.I.A. is fed data from every system the government has and many public sector systems too.  It gives the government the ability to see every move of every person within its database.  It is even able to infer the existence of someone who has not gotten their national identity card by the interactions of people who do have their card.  Again a situation where all rights to privacy have been suspended, whether the people know it or not.

By now, I am sure you are saying to yourself, “What is the point you are trying to make?” Well, apparently, there is a possibility that fiction could quickly become truth. This article on the BBC news website talks about a bill that will be introduced in November in the United Kingdom.  From the article:

Details of the times, dates, duration and locations of mobile phone calls, numbers called, website visited and addresses e-mailed are already stored by telecoms companies for 12 months under a voluntary agreement.

The data can be accessed by the police and security services on request – but the government plans to take control of the process in order to comply with an EU directive and make it easier for investigators to do their job.

Information will be kept for two years by law and may be held centrally on a searchable database.

So, it seems that we are moving beyond fictional representations of this type of behavior.  And lest we forget, the United States has been dealing with issues along these same lines for some time now. We hear about wire taps being put in place without warrants and Internet Service Providers allowing governmental agencies to install equipment that monitors all data moving over their backbones.

Let’s look at one final fictional rendition of a totalitarian state which controls its populace ruthlessly, George Orwell’s 1984. I leave you with two quotes from this book and let you draw your own conclusions as to where we are headed if we are not careful.

“The thought police would get him just the same. He had committed—would have committed, even if he had never set pen to paper—the essential crime that contained all others in itself. Thoughtcrime, they called it. Thoughtcrime was not a thing that could be concealed forever. You might dodge successfully for a while, even for years, but sooner or later they were bound to get you.”

“It was terribly dangerous to let your thoughts wander when you were in any public place or within range of a telescreen. The smallest thing could give you away. A nervous tic, an unconscious look of anxiety, a habit of muttering to yourself—anything that carried with it the suggestion of abnormality, of having something to hide. In any case, to wear an improper expression on your face… was itself a punishable offense. There was even a word for it in Newspeak: facecrime…”