Is Big Brother a Big Deal?

Big Brother isn’t what he used to be. George Orwell extrapolated his totalitarian state from the 1940s. Today’s information society looks nothing like Orwell’s world, and watching and intimidating a population today isn’t anything like what Winston Smith experienced.

Data collection in 1984 was deliberate; today’s is inadvertent. In the information society, we generate data naturally. In Orwell’s world, people were naturally anonymous; today, we leave digital footprints everywhere.

1984‘s police state was centralized; today’s is decentralized. Your phone company knows who you talk to, your credit card company knows where you shop and Netflix knows what you watch. Your ISP can read your email, your cell phone can track your movements and your supermarket can monitor your purchasing patterns. There’s no single government entity bringing this together, but there doesn’t have to be. As Neal Stephenson said, the threat is no longer Big Brother, but instead thousands of Little Brothers.

1984‘s Big Brother was run by the state; today’s Big Brother is market driven. Data brokers like ChoicePoint and credit bureaus like Experian aren’t trying to build a police state; they’re just trying to turn a profit. Of course these companies will take advantage of a national ID; they’d be stupid not to. And the correlations, data mining and precise categorizing they can do is why the U.S. government buys commercial data from them.

1984-style police states required lots of people. East Germany employed one informant for every 66 citizens. Today, there’s no reason to have anyone watch anyone else; computers can do the work of people.

1984-style police states were expensive. Today, data storage is constantly getting cheaper. If some data is too expensive to save today, it’ll be affordable in a few years.

And finally, the police state of 1984 was deliberately constructed, while today’s is naturally emergent. There’s no reason to postulate a malicious police force and a government trying to subvert our freedoms. Computerized processes naturally throw off personalized data; companies save it for marketing purposes, and even the most well-intentioned law enforcement agency will make use of it.

Of course, Orwell’s Big Brother had a ruthless efficiency that’s hard to imagine in a government today. But that completely misses the point. A sloppy and inefficient police state is no reason to cheer; watch the movie Brazil and see how scary it can be. You can also see hints of what it might look like in our completely dysfunctional “no-fly” list and useless projects to secretly categorize people according to potential terrorist risk. Police states are inherently inefficient. There’s no reason to assume today’s will be any more effective.

The fear isn’t an Orwellian government deliberately creating the ultimate totalitarian state, although with the U.S.’s programs of phone-record surveillance, illegal wiretapping, massive data mining, a national ID card no one wants and Patriot Act abuses, one can make that case. It’s that we’re doing it ourselves, as a natural byproduct of the information society.We’re building the computer infrastructure that makes it easy for governments, corporations, criminal organizations and even teenage hackers to record everything we do, and — yes — even change our votes. And we will continue to do so unless we pass laws regulating the creation, use, protection, resale and disposal of personal data. It’s precisely the attitude that trivializes the problem that creates it.

This essay appeared in the May issue of Information Security, as the second half of a point/counterpoint with Marcus Ranum. Here’s his half.

Posted on May 11, 2007 at 9:19 AM47 Comments

Comments

Kevin May 11, 2007 9:54 AM

Bruce, you need to close the tag after “Information Security”. Everything after this on the page is in italics.

Chris S May 11, 2007 9:54 AM

“watch Brazil and see how scary it can be”

Um … do you mean “Brazil”, the Terry Gilliam movie? If so, I would strongly suggest some markup on that word. You could markup “1984” as well when you mean the literary work. (Seriously – if you’re going to discuss “1984”, then “Brazil” is a natural offshoot of that discussion.)

Alternatively, maybe you do mean that Brazil the country has a police state.

Clarify?

Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey May 11, 2007 10:21 AM

You wrote:
As Neal Stephenson said, the threat is no longer Big Brother, but instead thousands of Little Brothers.

When did Neal Stephenson say this?

From the schedule for panels at the World Science Fiction Convention, Chicon V, on Monday, 2 September, 1991, cooked up (as you will no doubt recall) by yours truly:

1:00 pm
Lots of Little Brothers Are Watching: Privacy in Computerland –
Grand Ballroom B
Moderator: L.Z. Smith
A. Anda, D. Ihnat, C. Springs, C. Stoll

Our privacy may be at risk from monolithic government surveillance, but it’s under far more frequent assault from a multitude of private and commercial snoopers– credit bureaus, insurance companies, junkmailers, employers, and others. How has this come about? Does the Information Age provide us new weapons for fighting back?

Neal Stephenson was not in attendance. I don’t know where he first said the phrase, but Snow Crash, which seems like a good possibility, wasn’t published till 1992.

I may not have been the first person to use the phrase, but it seems like something that might well be coined independently on multiple occasions.

ARM May 11, 2007 10:21 AM

I’m not all that worried about a Police State. There’s not really enough profit in it.

I’m more worried about a Pseudo-Police State, in which the private organizations that have the skinny on me decide that I’m going to be punished (mainly through economic manipulations) for having done this or that – or for opting out of the system. Knowing what you’re up to allows people to beat up on you for things that violate their rules, but aren’t otherwise illegal, immoral or unethical. You then wind up in a weird shadow world, governed by a bunch of rules that you may not be aware of, have no input into, and may even be contradictory from one organization to another.

Probitas May 11, 2007 10:24 AM

If a government wanted to implement a “1984” style machine from scratch, Mr. Ranum’s observations would be relevant. However, since Google, ChoicePoint and others have done the footwork, the dynamic has changed somewhat.

Around 1989, in an emergency effort to control runaway inflation, the elected president of Brazil (the country, not the movie) froze access to all bank accounts overnight, promising to release the money shortly. A year later, the money was completely devalued, and the economy still in a shambles.

Now that 911 has changed everything, in an emergency effort to combat terrorism, the US government has effectively eliminated the need to set up a Big Brother style machine by grabbing access to the needed records stored by private industry. As observed by Mr. Ranum, it is not the government which will prove the truly dangerous problem. Instead, it is the huge amount of personal data we as consumers and citizens have willingly handed over in an effort to save a couple of bucks on our groceries. Whoever has access to that data is the potential brother, big or little.

Michael Ash May 11, 2007 10:51 AM

Your argument for privacy laws sounds an awful lot like the argument for stronger copyright laws in the face of a growing ability for information technology to bypass copyright protections.

Fundamentally there is little difference. Things you want to be truly private, you share with nobody and this works. But as soon as you share it with somebody, they can share it with others, and you lose control. Laws haven’t stopped massive copyright infringement using the same idea, so why would they stop massive privacy infringement?

Personally I’m for greater privacy laws and lesser copyright laws, but this article gives me the sense that I’m shoveling back the tide, just as the copyright cartel is trying to shovel back the tide of easy copying with draconian laws and DRM.

rmg May 11, 2007 10:52 AM

The Little Brothers concept is scary in an environment that has evolved it’s own economy around information. As that economy progresses, profit will demand increased efficiency. I don’t think it would be unreasonable to think that one day a large government organisation would take that well oiled information system and use it themselves. Once all these Little Brothers are trained and tuned, they can grow up into Big Brothers. The only thing worse than Big Brother is a whole bunch of Big Brothers.

@Bruce: Don’t forget, 1984 was written from an British POV about a British police state. All those cameras I hear about on the streets of London sound a lot more like Big Brother than Little Brother.

@ARM: I agree, that is scarier, but is there any profit in your Pseudo-Police-State? The adult entertainment industry is full of what some might see as punishable behaviour, but their profit is based on the lack of punishment.

Jeff May 11, 2007 10:53 AM

Great article.

Regarding markup on Brazil, I would recommend the cite element, which you can use for articles, book, movies, etc. At least you didn’t use em, though.

dragonfrog May 11, 2007 11:21 AM

@Michael Ash

In the USA, as I understand it (from up here in Canada) the copyright changes such as the DMCA don’t technically change copyright – that is, they don’t change what your fair use rights are. What they do is essentially allow private companies to write their own exceptions to copyright laws.

This is by allowing copyright holders to put in place measures to prevent you from exercising your “protected” fair use rights, and then making it a crime (not even a tort, if I’m not mistaken) to try to exercise your rights in spite of those measures. Somehow, the courts have found that this doesn’t affect your fair use rights.

The US approach to privacy seems to follow the same lines – leave the “ownership” of personal information in the hands of whoever can learn it, by hook or by crook. Then put in place little bits and pieces of regulations restricting what information “owners” can do with “their” information. This seems like it’s been done to try to obtain privacy-like results, without actually enacting a framework that would comprehensively protect privacy.

The Canadian approach has beem quite different. Here, the overall ownership of information has been solidly defined – personal information belongs to the person it describes. The collectors of that information are its trustees, not owners, and may not make any use of it to which the owners (the people described) have not explicitly consented. Specific limitations and obligations are then constructed to be consistent with that framework, rather than as exceptions to a framework of no privacy.

hhh May 11, 2007 11:44 AM

A striking little example for the effects of this developing infrastructure:

http://thescotsman.scotsman.com/international.cfm?id=727732007

“Police (…) said the case only came to light after a neighbour’s domestic camera, installed as his wife was expecting a baby, picked up images from a similar device used by the unnamed woman to keep tabs on her son.”

In this case, the little brother was benign, saving an eight-year-old boy from severe mistreatment. But how many people have exploited these non-secure cameras and baby phones for entirely different purposes (voyeurism being just one possible example)?

Alan May 11, 2007 11:59 AM

Big Brother is being outsourced. There is a meme that it is only a violation of the Constitution when “the Government does it”. Functions that used to be done by police and goverment forces are now being outsourced to private contractors. This makes any sort of oversight by those outside the government difficult or next to impossible.

In order to escape the legality of regulations used to hastle the homeless in Portland Oregon, they hired private security patrols to do the job.

Our government hires companies like Blackwater and Haliburton to get around what they are legally allowed to do. (Not that they care about “legal” anymore…)

“Rent-A-Big-Brother” is going to be a much bigger threat. It is not just your job that will get outsourced. Big Brother is getting outsourced as well.

Anonymous May 11, 2007 12:04 PM

“phone-record surveillance, illegal wiretapping, massive data mining, a national ID card no one wants and Patriot Act abuses”

Don’t you mean “a national ID card I don’t want”? 😛 Well, OK, there’s lots of people besides you who don’t want it, either, but I don’t think it’s accurate to say that noone does. If that was true, there wouldn’t be any plans for one.

ARM May 11, 2007 12:22 PM

@ rmg

“I agree, that is scarier, but is there any profit in your Pseudo-Police-State? The adult entertainment industry is full of what some might see as punishable behaviour, but their profit is based on the lack of punishment.”

The Psuedo-Police state won’t likely be “profitable” as a whole. But the organizations that make it up might see profit (or benefit) in their surveillence and manipulations.

It comes into play when CleanCo decides that accessing adult entertainment is grounds for not being hired for a job, because the boss has a problem with it. Or if an insurance company decides that what someone’s into makes them a worse risk, and bumps their rates up. While these actions might be illegal, without someone knowing that these groups have the information, and knowing that they’re using it improperly, their desires become a hidden constraint on what you can and cannot do without being punished.

But here’s another example – perhaps CarCo decides that employees that trade in AutoCo stock will be singled out for more aggressive disciplinary actions, or passed over for promotion for “disloyalty,” even though there is no stated (or legally valid) policy against same.

The Pseudo-Police State isn’t going to be a single monolithic entity, in the way that a government Police State might be. It’s a number of different groups, each enforcing its own rules. It could even be a battleground for corporate warfare, as companies seek to use unspoken economic leverage to manipulate the markets. (Like charging customers that own competitors’ stock higher prices.)

Simon May 11, 2007 12:30 PM

Ranum is an idiot. His argument that we don’t have to worry about RFID mining is that there are other ways personal data gets taken. That’s like saying you needn’t worry about wearing your seatbelt in your car because you might die in an airplane crash.

And he says we needn’t worry about e-voting security because there are older ways to steal an election. Yes, but now there’s an easier way! And it can be done with total impunity so long as people like Ranum think nobody will bother to do it!

However, you deserve credit for pointing out the real risks from scratch, and not devoting your essay to Ranum’s flawed reasoning. (Assuming that you saw his before writing yours at all.)

Pass A BroadLaw! May 11, 2007 12:46 PM

In the King James version of the Bible, in Matthew 6:3, we are admonished “let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth.” Bruce seems to have mastered this technique insofar as his rational left-brain must be unaware of what his emotional right-brain spurts out as the only conceivable answer to tough social problems, namely, “Pass a law! Regulate it!”

Such is the thinking of those who are aghast at what the State does on the one hand (the Patriot Act), yet implore the same State as a paternalist savior on the other. But of course, “What other answer could there be, except legislation?” Right?

Tanuki May 11, 2007 12:49 PM

TBH I’m less worried about corporate big-brother than State Big-Brother.

Corporate big-brother is really only interested in marketing to me.

State Big Brother wants to tax and regulate me, and potentially imprison me if I do things which are in their eyes ‘naughty’ – like voting for a fringe political-party, trying to keep my personal wealth from the tax-authorities, not recycling, driving fast/at high-traffic times or wanting to defend myself.

ARM May 11, 2007 1:00 PM

@ Simon

I think that part of Mr. Ranum’s point is that people tend to ignore current, boring threats in favor of cutting-edge, sexy threats. And to a degree, he’s right. Side-curtain airbags might be the spiffy new thing in cars, but you shouldn’t think that you don’t need to wear a seat belt just because you have them.

These new high-tech threats haven’t created the threat of Big Brother – the threat existed long before these technologies were invented, as there are lower tech, and more tested ways of doing a lot of the same things. You don’t need hacked voting machines to have election fraud.

His other point, that the current federal government is too incompetent to pull it off, is also well taken. It’s tempting to let ourselves beleive that even massive screw-ups are all part of a carefully orchestrated plan, but you could make the point that a goverment that can botch regional disaster recovery with the highest-tech gear on the planet is unlikely to competently manage a Police State over the whole of the country.

Anonymous May 11, 2007 1:15 PM

@ Tanuki

“Corporate big-brother is really only interested in marketing to me.”

I think that a better way of putting that is that Corporate Big Brother is really only interested in accumulating as many resources as it can. But the idea that CBB would limit itself to marketing goods and services to you, and hoping that you buy them, is likely untrue.

  • CBB may want to regulate how long you may use a product before you have to purchase a new one.
  • CBB could want to monitor your usage of a product, and fine or imprison you if loan it to others, rather than having them buy their own.
  • CBB might want to tax you to pay for its facilities, rather than pay out of its own pocket.
  • CBB may wish to monitor your communications, so that it can ensure that you never badmouth its services to others.
  • CBB may decide to curtail your access to courts, so that you have no recourse if it injures you with defective goods.

  • CBB may want to control your movements, so that you have no choice but to use its transportation services.

Corporate Big Brother, in its quest for ever more wealth, can EASILY be as scary as Government Big Brother.

Tanuki May 11, 2007 1:47 PM

Anonymous@01:15 PM’s comments are interesting – and most can be worked-round by a good legal team and the wealth to employ them. Until CBB runs its own courts, its own armies, its own police, its own tax-system, its own courts and its own prisons I’ll still prefer to live on the edge under CBB than SBB [State Big Brother]. Financially motivated Big Brother can always be bought off, unlike his State bastard-child. CBB might even one day pay me a fat dividend – something that State Big Brother never has.

Sean Barrett May 11, 2007 2:43 PM

This essay is good except your rhetorical device of claiming the “old style” of Big Brother is totally supplanted is weird, since “watching and intimidating a population” is also being done in much the manner Orwell proposed: http://granades.com/2007/04/13/citizen-please-report-to-room-101/
(This particular link chosen since it mentions both the watching and the intimidating.)

The reality, I think, is that we have to worry about both kinds of Brothering.

ARM May 11, 2007 2:50 PM

@ Tanuki

True, Corporate Big Brother can only institute the measures listed in Anon’s post by pretty much becoming at least a partner with government (hmm, where I have I seen that happening). But I think it speaks to the idea that Corporate Big Brother might want a little more than just your eyeballs on their next marketing blitz. While they might not have the means to implement it alone, they can want any or all of the same things (even if for different reasons) that State Big Brother might be after.

bob May 11, 2007 3:17 PM

My understanding was that the DDR employed more like one informant for every THREE citizens.

Dan Klinedinst May 11, 2007 3:57 PM

As an infosec professional, I find it ironic that there is such a strong reaction by the media and the public to breaches that expose “private” information like SSN and credit card number, yet that same public will happily turn over all of the information Bruce mentioned to various corporations; will give credit card numbers to cashiers, waitresses and web sites they know nothing about; and will allow their personal medical information to be collected and sold without complaint.

The risk to individuals is obvious – people can use your personal data against your best interest. An additional risk to society is that corporations and governments will spend a lot of money trying to prevent high-publicity losses of what is basically low value information, and spend correspondingly less protecting strategic information – R&D, financials, the CEO’s email, etc.

aeschylus May 11, 2007 3:57 PM

“correlations, data mining and precise categorizing they can do are” not “is”.

skate May 11, 2007 5:03 PM

” Financially motivated Big Brother can always be bought off, unlike his State bastard-child. CBB might even one day pay me a fat dividend – something that State Big Brother never has.
Posted by: Tanuki”

Indeed that is part of the insinuation, “don’t worry about your eroding rights because someday you might be in the elite and make money from CBB.” This makes CBB into a sort of rights eroding Ponzi scheme where everyone is anti-privacy as long as they are led to believe it will affect others more than themselves.

The belief in the American Dream is a deceptive one. It is that belief that allows republicans to lobby Americans to repeal the Estate Tax that only affects a very few of the richest Americans. People aspire to be rich and wouldn’t want the “death tax” to siphon off the vast wealth they aspire too. (Don’t bother with the family farms lost to the death tax bs. That one is a myth. The Reps tried and failed to find examples of this happening–and even if they did find an isolated example it would still be a rare exception for which exemptions could be made in the Estate Tax and would not justify its repeal.)

I also don’t buy that data collection is in inadvertent. Some of it is, but much of it is very much deliberately collected. And has been pointed out here, the infrastructure may be in large part private but that infrastructure can and has been co-opted by the government for data mining. Schneier is out on a limb. Some one should check to see if he slept next to a pod last night.

D May 11, 2007 5:09 PM

@Bruce

May I recommend italicizing the title of the book so it’s not confused with the actual year? Thanks.

–D

Marcus Ranum May 11, 2007 5:47 PM

@ Simon

His argument that we don’t have to
worry about RFID mining is that there
are other ways personal data gets
taken. That’s like saying you needn’t
worry about wearing your seatbelt in
your car because you might die in an
airplane crash.

No, the idea is that you should invest your defensive efforts against the problems that are most likely to occur. That’s “Security 101”! Of course it’s possible that your RFID passport will leak out your information. But isn’t it vastly more likely that some retard from the “Department of RFID” will lose the whole database on a laptop? I’m not saying we shouldn’t be worried — far from it — I’m saying we should be worried about what’s more likely to happen.

Same applies to E-voting. I think that the E-voting machines are ridiculous and are a serious problem. But they are nowhere near as ridiculous as the vote-manipulation that happens on prime-time television. It’s silly to worry about bad guy E-stealing an E-lection when you’ve got televised disinformation campaigns (“Swift Boat Veterans for Propaganda!”) affecting the election to a far greater degree.

Many other readers point out that “Big Brother is being outsourced” – the premise, there, is flawed. I’ve seen how effective government outsourcing is and it doesn’t scare me. Totalitarianism needs to be nimble, to react to rebellions or social change. Outsourced “Little Brother” is going to be annoying, expensive, incompetent, and – yes – dangerous. But it’ll be dangerously stupid, not dangerously competent.

Perspective – and balance – is everything.

mjr.

Sean Riley May 11, 2007 6:48 PM

You kicked his butt, Bruce. Your argument is approximately 100 times more coherent and well considered.

nostromo May 12, 2007 12:40 AM

“I’m not all that worried about a Police State. There’s not really enough profit in it. I’m more worried about a Pseudo-Police State, in which the private organizations …”
Private organizations only want my money. The State wants to control my life. That’s why a Police State is much more to be feared than private data-collectors.
And when private organizations do bad things, we can either sue them, or the government can pass and enforce laws. For example, if United Airlines had set up its own “no-fly list” and put me on it for no valid reason, there are several ways to make United Airlines come to heel; or I could just fly some other airline. But when the Government puts you on its no-fly list …

Bigger Brother May 12, 2007 7:33 AM

Keep in mind that inadvertent collection of information can lead to a much easier consolidation of such information by whatever centralized group, organisation, government, name-your-fear.

The difference between state and market driven “Big Brotherism” is not a huge difference given how the state and the corporation are slowly merging their interests.

I would urge people to read some collected articles on http://bigbrother.worldwidewarning.net

Lawrence D'Oliveiro May 13, 2007 2:10 AM

It isn’t just corporates you have to worry about–it’s anybody with a cellphone with a camera built-in. It’s now possible for all of us to take pictures of each other. Do something on a drunken night out that other people might find amusing, and next thing it’s on Youtube, posted for the enjoyment of everybody in the world.

For example, look what happened to Daniela Cicarelli http://www.forbes.com/2007/05/10/streisand-digg-web-tech-cx_ag_0511streisand_slide_10.html

JeffH May 14, 2007 3:01 AM

@ARM “You then wind up in a weird shadow world, governed by a bunch of rules that you may not be aware of, have no input into, and may even be contradictory from one organization to another.”
I agree totally. I think what worries me is that there are days I feel like I’m in that world already.

Consider that some UK supermarkets are now trying to sell health insurance – how long before they link your premium to your shopping habits? They know how many donuts you bought as a kid, after all…

Although the call for regulation is perhaps a harsh one, I feel it’s necessary since it’s quite clear that corporations won’t do the right thing out of any moral imperative. However, even regulation is useless without auditing and enforcement, neither of which seems to happen.

Sadly regulation is only set and enforced by the state. The state seems to be increasingly divorced from the populace and the populace seems to have a mob mentality when it comes to bad privacy law. Worse, the state itself will have different rules depending on which country you’re in. Don’t like the privacy laws of Canada? Store your corporate data in the US. They change the rules in the US? Move it to Paraguay.

When it comes right down to it, the problem is that most people don’t care about these issues until it affects them directly. Until then, they see the blaring media claiming it’ll be good for catching sex-offenders and terrorists, and nod, saying, yes that sounds good, and it’ll never affect me.

Guillaume May 14, 2007 4:07 AM

“1984’s Big Brother was run by the state; today’s Big Brother is market driven”

I think this isn’t quite correct: market driven economy exists because the state wants to (otherwise gouverments wouldn’t sign WTO trade agreements and other things like it). So you can pretty much conclude that “the state’s big brother is created by the market”. Also note that state intervention in the market is very frequent (via the pentagon for the US)

Anonymouser May 14, 2007 8:31 AM

I hope it plays out as you say it will, Bruce, because, you see, what’s good for the gander is good for the goose.

The issue, here, as always, is public access to the data. As long as the surveillance &/ ID databases are held by the Government, they are largely inaccessible to the public. If they are held by private entities (as is increasingly the case in the US), then they become also accessible – for the right price – to anyone – freedom-fighters and would-be dictators alike.

Imagine a Panopticon society which is being actively maintained by its citizens, safe in the knowledge that if everyone is watching everyone else, nobody will misbehave grossly.

Marko May 15, 2007 1:13 AM

http://www.smartmobs.com/archive/2007/05/03/homeland_securi….html

How about this Cell-All thingey? Have you already taken a look at it?

It seems to be aimed on developing a distributed solution of sensors built in cellphones that would report to US officials of any suspicious activities. How likely this sort of thing is so succeed in moden commersial environment? Can US officials force manufacturers to include stuff into cellphones (which are quite complex pieces of HW& SW interaction already)

Marko May 15, 2007 1:54 AM

http://www.smartmobs.com/archive/2007/05/03/homeland_securi….html

How about this Cell-All thingey? Have you already taken a look at it?

It seems to be aiming for a distributed solution of sensors built in cellphones that would report to US officials of any suspicious activities. How likely this sort of thing is so succeed in moden commersial environment? Can US officials force manufacturers to include stuff into cellphones (which are quite complex pieces of HW& SW interaction already)

Guillaume May 15, 2007 9:10 AM

Hi.

Note that “1984” also – if not almost – focuses on newspeak as on State monitoring & anti-Privacy politics.
Newspeak is the ultimate form of totalitarism that makes free speech impossible because of this new language voluntarly lacks any word to name or describe alternatives way of thinking.

Oldtimer May 16, 2007 10:14 AM

I think your concerns about privacy and data collection are warrented, but I also think that the value of data mining, is way over estimated. My upfront and close observations of some data-warehouse/data-mining initiatives tells me that some executives
who clamor for such things are hoping that it compensates for their
fundamental lack of understanding of their own clients and markets. I suspect that Bill Gates did not use data mining to turn microsoft into a giant. (they may use it now, but thats a different story)

NotMyName December 13, 2007 2:31 AM

I realize that this is an old blog, but it came during my browsing and reminds of a program I had on a TV in the background a couple of days ago while I was waiting for something else to come on. The program was about military uses of robots and the then-new concept of swarming.

As they were using it, the term “swarm” was limited to surveillance robots that were going to be the size of insects and use autonomous networks with their radio, infrared, etc communications to search out buildings, communicate their findings through each other back to their controllers, (benevolent, of course). They didn’t get into the micro-dust robots that were theorized a few years ago.

But it seems to me that the same thing applies here. Instead of the monolithic Orwellian model, we have a “swarm” situation. Instead of a clearly defined, easily identifiable and communicatable big Brother agency, we live in a world of independent tracking networks collecting data of every conceivable description and increasingly exposing that data.

With today’s technology, anyone can be targeted by pattern analysis of publicly available databases and subsequently tracked under what could be termed “close virtual surveillance” through the whole “swarm” network. That may be fine when it exposes terrorists. BUT, is it acceptable to scrutinize every single person throughout every single detail of his or her life every single second of every single day to catch terrorists. Even if the end justifies the means, tell me, how many terrorists have been caught from this sort of pervasive surveillance of citizens.

Whether it’s called “calm technology” or “swarm technology”, the effect is the same: camouflage. It’s total surveillance hidden away so that practically no one recognizes it.

And that is just what’s available “on the up and up”. What if the person/entity watching doesn’t limit the effort to what’s available for sale? What if the interested party is a rival, terrorist group, hostile nation or something even worse that chooses to break into supposed “secure” sources of data? What are the national security issues of that? Let alone the personal ones.

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