Is Big Brother a Big Deal?

By Bruce Schneier
Information Security
May 2007

This essay appeared as part of a point-counterpoint with Marcus Ranum. Marcus's side, to which this is a response, can be found on his website.

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.

earlier essay: How Security Companies Sucker Us With Lemons
later essay: Psychology of Security
categories: National Security Policy, Privacy and Surveillance
back to Essays and Op Eds

Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.

Schneier on Security is a personal website. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Co3 Systems, Inc..