Ethics @ Work: Big brother is watching you

The technological infrastructure for a third-generation '1984' world is already in place.

asher meir 88 (photo credit: )
asher meir 88
(photo credit: )
In 1949, George Orwell wrote a novel entitled Nineteen Eighty-Four. The novel, now a classic, describes a dystopian future (future for 1949, that is) in which all party members and all public areas are under constant surveillance by the ruling party, and the cameras are accompanied by the sign "Big Brother is watching you." The constant surveillance enables the party to keep tight control of the citizenry and to have advance warning of any signs of possible subversive activity. Life in East Germany under Communist rule, and life in North Korea today, is not very different in many ways from life in the 1984 England of Orwell's imagination. The main difference is the technological means. Communist East Germany lacked, and Communist North Korea lacks, enough money to put a camera and transmitter in every house. Wealthy democracies, by contrast, have so much money they don't even have to. We the citizens of these countries put cameras and transmitters into our own houses and even carry them with us wherever we go. Most of our communication is via phone conversations (landline or cellphone), Internet (chat or e-mail) or digital messages. These conversations are easily intercepted, while the records of who calls whom are automatically kept by the carriers for months. Even your nonelectronic conversations (I hesitate to call them "ordinary") can be easily monitored if you are in the vicinity of a cellphone. Law enforcement agencies have used this technique successfully in place of old-fashioned bugging devices. Your cellphone even reveals where you are. You can disable it by taking out the battery, but this is a clear giveaway that you are trying to avoid detection. We can see that the technological infrastructure for a third-generation 1984 world is already in place. What we comfortably assume is lacking is the human infrastructure needed to turn the technology into a tool of social control. Your phone records are in the hands of a private carrier and the government needs a warrant to obtain them or listen in. Your Internet activity is in the hands of a service provider and, in all likelihood, a Web-mail provider. The other source of solace is that the volume of communication a tyrant might want to scrutinize is incredibly high - perhaps intractably so. It's not safe to assume that these protections will endure. The legal protections are helpful, but the commercial providers may themselves become quite concentrated. It is hardly unusual to have the same provider for Internet and mobile phones. Imagine how much Google will know about you if you start using them for your cellphone. And the legal protections are by no means guaranteed. British snoop-master Sir David Pepper is promoting a new initiative called the Interception Modernization Program, which would centralize records of electronic communications in the hands of the British government. The stated goal, and probably the genuine one, is to battle terrorism. But once such a database is compiled, the potential for mischief is breathtaking. (Britain already has by far the most intrusive public surveillance in the form of their extensive system of public-area television cameras.) It is small solace that you can't watch everybody. You can't watch everyone, but you can watch anyone - and it's pretty easy to zero in on the people you might be interested in. Anyway, surveillance technology is improving all the time. If they can't already filter everybody's conversations for suspicious words (today it might be jihad; tomorrow it could be freedom), it is only a matter of time until technology catches up. I can think of a few things we could do to stave off such a dystopic scenario. The first is to strenuously oppose initiatives such as the Interception Modernization Program. The whole reason we want to defeat terrorism is to protect our freedom. I can't see why we would want to preemptively remove our own freedom to identify prospective terrorists. Another promising direction is to make the suspicious routine, so that it's harder to zero in on potential troublemakers. Maybe we should all start encrypting communications routinely and taking out our cellphone batteries whenever we can. I don't know the solution, but I think it's time we think seriously about the potentially serious consequences of living in a society where every individual carries a sophisticated surveillance device at all times. Asher Meir is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem (, an independent institute in the Jerusalem Institute of Technology.