Monday, December 03, 2012

Big Brother is watching … George Orwell


Today we are being spied on most of the time. For instance, when I am on line, many web pages I visit have advertisements urging me to follow Dutch language courses. Why do they think that I might be interested in it? Because they have sent “cookies” to my computer in order to find out who I am and what my interests are. In this case it is quite an unintelligent way of spying, for why should a native speaker of Dutch want to learn Dutch? But it is an illustration that espionage or rather being spied on has become an intrinsic part of our lives.
The best known way of such espionage is the use of surveillance cameras, also called, CCTV cameras (CCTV = Closed Circuit TV). You find them everywhere. For instance, when I am going to make a run in the wood behind my house, the first steps after I have left my street are on the grounds of a psychiatric institute and the first thing I see is a CCTV camera. In the past sometimes I met a security guard on his round. Then he greeted me, but the camera says nothing.
Obviously, cameras are not employed without reason. People want to keep an eye on their properties. Authorities want to watch the public space hoping that it will become safer and more secure. And there are many other good (and also bad) reasons for installing cameras. Does it work? Studies show it hardly does.
The first CCTV system was installed seventy years ago. Before there were other ways to spy on, of course. However, these systems were personal in some way, for the watching agent was a person of flesh and blood. In a certain sense it is still so: Behind a surveillance camera there is someone who looks on a screen seeing what is happening. But more and more the systems are automated and systems of automatic face recognition exist already.
The science fiction novel We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (first published in 1924) was a source of inspiration for George Orwell. People there lived in a kind of see-through houses where everybody could observe what everybody else was doing. If you wanted to have a few private hours for yourself, for instance for passing an evening with your sweetheart, you had to apply for an official permit to close your curtains. George Orwell has replaced this quite primitive system by telescreens in each house and on all public places with hidden microphones and cameras. The leader of the state where all this happens is called Big Brother, and everywhere there are posters of him with the caption “Big Brother is watching you”.
Today gradually Orwell’s novel seems to become reality, and, how cynical, in Orwell’s country Britain in the first place. An article on the Internet from the London Evening Standard from 2007 tells me that there were already 4.2 million CCTV cameras in Britain in that year, or one for every 14 people in the country and 20 per cent of cameras globally. “It has been calculated”, so the article, “that each person is caught on camera an average of 300 times daily.” And where do we find these spy cameras? Around Orwell’s former home in North London, for instance. Within less than 200 metres from this flat, where Orwell lived until his death in 1950, there are 32 CCTV cameras, “scanning every move”, so the article. And it continues: “Orwell's view of the tree-filled gardens outside the flat is under 24-hour surveillance from two cameras perched on traffic lights. The flat's rear windows are constantly viewed from two more security cameras outside a conference centre ... In a lane, just off the square, close to Orwell's favourite pub ... a camera at the rear of a car dealership records every person entering or leaving the pub. Within a 200-yard radius of the flat, there are another 28 CCTV cameras, together with hundreds of private, remote-controlled security cameras used to scrutinise visitors to homes, shops and offices.”
If George Orwell would still have been alive, he would have been continuously within the vision fields of our modern big and little brothers and sisters, with all advantages and risks that it involves (and I am afraid that the risks are bigger than the advantages, as I have tried to explain in previous blogs). Big Brother is watching you, also, or maybe just, when you are George Orwell.

The article from the London Evening Standard:
An interesting report on the risks and other issues related to camera surveillance:
http://www.raeng.org.uk/news/publications/list/reports/dilemmas_of_privacy_and_surveillance_report.pdf

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