If you have a nagging feeling that someone is constantly looking over your shoulder, your hunch is probably correct. Look as hard as you may but, you will probably not find someone hiding behind a newspaper with two holes cut out, nor a man with a bushy mustache and bulbous nose peering at you from a distance. However, you can be sure that the lyrics, “I always feel like somebody’s watching me. And I have no privacy” is more than a catchy refrain from an 1980s Michael Jackson pop song.
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In the information age, where data is digital gold, everyone from global fast food chains to governments or shady charlatans want to get to know you better, as intimately as possible even… These details about a person’s life is then used for providing better products and services or even for surveillance and national security. In the wrong hands, it can be used against a person in the form of fraud. Whereas petty scammers obtain one’s information through relatively unsophisticated methods like trickery and corporations rely on incentivised surveys, cookies and bots, the intelligence agencies of major governments take it to much higher level.
Nabbing the Bad Guys
Today’s unconventional threats have called for unconventional measures and the clandestine threats that jeopardize the safety of nations have resulted in sophisticated methods to address them. One visible manifestation of this response is a growing network of closed circuit television (CCTV) around the world. Nowhere is this taken to the consummate degree, or denounced as 1984-esque by detractors, as in China. With 170 million CCTV cameras currently installed and a target of 400 million by 2020, China’s network is the most extensive in the world. Processing all that visual information is a monumental task left to an equally impressive data collation computer system to sift through. Through the AI equipped CCTV cameras, the surveillance system can identify vehicle information, perform facial recognition to obtain individual data or even distinguish crimes like jaywalking.
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The age-old tactic developing a self policing community through snitching on one’s neighbour has also been given a modern reinvention. In early 2015, a cellphone app was developed for anyone with access to an Android or Apple smartphone to report illegal activities, domestic disputes and other problems. It saw a surge in use during an anti-corruption campaign in the same year by the China’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection – the country’s corruption watchdog. Incentives are given to those who make genuine, verified reports but this new mechanism has understandably given rise to some concern.
A Surveillance Society
On the other side of the globe, Western governments have the ability to track emails, texts, phone calls, and app messengers like Whatsapp. Broadened powers in the wake of global terrorism have prompted increased monitoring in a bid to prevent disaster from even taking place in the first place. In a Washington Post article, the (National Security Agency) NSA is reportedly able to track mobile phone users across the globe to form a database of an individual’s travel patterns, associates or even track a particular target. In Singapore, the Computer Misuse and Cybersecurity Act allows the authorities to obtain information through pre-emptive surveillance on a target if it is deemed to be crutial.
In certain countries, GPS tracking on the cars of unsuspecting owners is conducted by the authorities. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the USA performs this activity and has admitted to tracking roughly 3,000 vehicles without their knowledge.
Bordering on science fiction and Hollywood, scientists at Carnegie Mellon University developed an algorithm to decipher a person’s thoughts using an Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machine. Delving deeper into “mind reading”, reconstructing an image of peoples’ faces that test subjects were thinking of was achieved at a rudimentary level by another scientific team at the University of Oregon. It doesn’t take much imagination to where this technology can be applied to.
Most government agencies have a record of details about most or all of its citizens. This includes the major powers in the European Union, the USA, Russia, India to name a few. This repository of information can store details that include photos, fingerprints, DNA and more recently, biometric data. Keeping lists of people and a record of their data is not new and has been in existence since at least the 19th century. France’s “Carnet B” was created in 1886 and was a list of suspected foreign spies. The purpose was to identify, classify and ultimately prevent them from conducting espionage activities, whether or not they began with such intentions.
Therein lies a sticking point about balancing privacy and surveillance. The dangers of profiling and singling individuals out for potential crimes can be construed as a violation of personal freedom or just simply unfair. With a greater depth and breadth of material that can be stored in such databases, the authorities tread the slippery slope of balancing the pros and cons. In one camp, the argument is that a loss of privacy is a small price to pay for better security and in any case who can we trust if not our leaders. In the other history looms ominously with incidents of abuse of power. In either case, flashes of 1984 would haunt many as we enter 2018 with technology progressing to a level that makes the inviolable line of privacy more permeable.