Saturday, March 7, 2009

How Long until "1984"

There are currently 4.2 millions surveillance cameras operational in the UK alone (thanks to Pietro Perona for pointing this out to me). That is one camera for every 14 people.... The data on your cellphone, such as your social network, your current location and of course your phone calls, can easily be accessed by phone companies. Your credit-card history, your bank transactions, your email, they all present easily accessible information to intelligence agencies. Add to this the immense growth in computer power and the improvement of artificial intelligence systems and it may not be hard to imagine that very soon it may be "1984".

Already, companies such as Google, Yahoo and Microsoft are designing web-applications which are based on tracking large numbers of cellphones. When many tracks intersect in both space and time an "event" happens (for example a baseball game). People present at these events upload text and photos into websites such as "Twitter", creating some sort of self-organizing online news experience. One can imagine a new Googlemaps application where events are shown on a map. You may then click on the event and see the rich multi-media content for that event as it develops.

We are increasingly covering every patch of (interesting) space-time with our multi-media. We may ask the question if this trend is desirable or perhaps even dangerous. Imagine a government having that much information at her fingertips. It may be awefully tempting to use it to blackmail political oponents etc. But, may be we will be forced into this direction, whether we want it or not.

I remember the 9/11 attacks were a shock to me because for the first time in my life I realized there are actually people out there who will go to any lengths to further their religious or/and political goals, even if it means killing millions of people. It is a matter of time before terrorist will get their hands on very small atomic bombs. I do not believe we will be able to prevent these devices from going off in one of our big cities. Perhaps even more dangerous is biological warfare. It's a matter of time before these technologies become so advanced and widespread that they may fall into the wrong hands.

In my opinion, we will see one of these extreme catastrophies in the somewhat near future (plus or minus 100 years that is). At that point, people will be willing to trade all their privacy for security. People will be tagged at birth with a chip and followed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. A patchwork of cameras and smart software will detect individuals which are not tagged. They will be instantly arrested. The population of this future country will act as one organism that breaths through the internet. It will monitor its constituents and its environment. But who will monitor its government?

This scenario sounds like a nightmare now. But it may be a price people are willing to take in the future. If no explicit measures are taken to keep this information out of the hands of governments or other organisations, the sketched sceneario may simply be a byproduct of the technology that is rapidly becoming available. Of course these measures will presumably be taken in the short run, but my prediction is that in the long run it may prove to be the only weapon against an increasingly sophisticated terrorist kind of warfare.

Even though today this type monitoring and control seems to be taken directly from Orwell's science fiction story "1984", the world in 100 years may be so utterly different that people living then may find it "desirable". We may become "Borg" after all. Resistance is futile.

1 comment:

  1. I thing drawing a causal relationship starting from terrorists/criminals/irresponsible individuals to harder policies is incorrect - these two things interact.

    In UK there are signs everywhere telling you what to do, and what not to do. In the street (look right\look left), in the train (opening this door while in motion might cause immediate death) and so on. In the Netherlands there are extremely few (oh, and mainly in dutch which are incomprehendable for a large portion of the population). I don't remember anyone falling in the train track in the Netherlands - oh, and smoking weed is actually legalised - there are hundreds of potheads taking the train:-). Maybe, less surveillance leads to more responsible people!

    Maybe also, the Big Brother is not able to protect us from terrorists. When did last Sweden, Norway, Holland, Greece, Germany, Mexico, Colombia or even UK REALLY had a terrorist attack from WORLD TERRORISTS? (and that is more than 95% of the world's population ) Terrorists are local groups that we can not really avoid - and certainly not through surveillance.

    Do you really think there exist training camps in the middle of the desert, with freedom warriors that want to attack the US? In computer science, this sounds like artifact detection on a yellow background in the satellite images. Is it really that hard?

    The 9/11 attack was an independent hit. It had nothing to do with a bunch of radical Muslims 10000 miles away! Do not overestimate the intelligence of these people!

    Finally, it was the bad Vietnamese, then the bad Koreans, the bad Cubans, the damn Ruskies, the terrible Sadam Husein with the weapons of mass destruction (:-D ha ha ha) the Afganistan terrorists (which would be rightfully invaded only by feminists).

    How long does this ridiculous line has to become, for EVERYONE to see that there is always the bad guy out there to excuse the misuse of military force from the US side? Isn't it like a Disneyland story? Or is it just America - World Police, and they protect freedom because "freedom is the only way"?