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Orwell was an Optimist
Category: Privacy
by Admin on Wednesday, June 25th, 2008 at 03:45:32

Here is a quote from Orwell's 1984:

The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it, moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live — did live, from habit that became instinct — in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.

Now let me point out a few interesting facts.

Orwell imagined the telescreen — the TV, essentially — being a bi-directional channel. He thought that having brought signals in, the channel could be used to bring them out, as well. Here, he did not anticipate the Internet, with the ability to bring as many video channels out as one might like. Today, technically (and financially) speaking, connecting to hundreds of different cameras on your own personal network is perfectly feasible. Including from the television. In fact, it can be thousands, if you're familiar with how networks operate and can configure it properly. Orwell didn't anticipate that your laptop would have a camera (and a microphone); so would your telephone; that you carried your telephone everywhere; that your PDA (which could also be your phone) and / or "pad" would have a camera. And a microphone. He didn't anticipate that the cost of camera technology would drop to literally pennies. Systems like Google Home and Amazon's Alexa... both with versions sporting cameras and microphones... he didn't see those coming, either.

He imagined that a low whisper could defeat the ability of technology to hear; this is not the case. Audio sensitivity, negative pre-distortion, and background noise reduction can render any attempt to prevent a listening device from hearing you by reducing your volume or "covering" with other sounds ineffective.

He imagined you could only be watched by a person; by a member of the "thought police." As it turns out, computers can watch everyone at once. They can pick your expression or clothing or identity out of a crowd and call for a person (or another computer) to take the issue further. They can scan your speech, and relate it to current events, advertising, and legal issues.

He imagined that the telescreen's camera would have a limited field of vision; he didn't anticipate that cameras would be so inexpensive that they could be everywhere; he didn't anticipate the use of extreme wide-angle lenses, or the software to correct the wide-angle "fisheye" view back into rectilinear space; he didn't anticipate "stitching" of multiple views into one seamless whole; nor did he anticipate that your cellphone would tell the authorities — and the authority's computers — where you are via GPS and cell tower triangulation, so they (and their computers) would know precisely which camera(s) they should look at. He didn't anticipate GPS at all.

Low IR Image

He imagined that darkness was cover from monitoring. But today, high infrared allows watching in what to you appears to be complete darkness; almost any camera can see in the high infrared with the simple addition of an inexpensive IR illumination system. Even more advanced are deep infrared systems that don't require illumination at all, but use your own body's heat and the heat of the environment around you to register your presence and activities, as the example to the right demonstrates.

Today's surveillance technology is not significantly limited by time, convenience, size, personnel, computing power, or funding.

To this series of technological empowerments we add the fact that here in the USA, the protection that was written into our constitution (the 4th amendment) that was intended to zealously guard our privacy has been reduced to a mostly ignored footnote. As I write this, the United Kingdom is already quite a distance further down this same path, lacking even the slight resistance provided by our constitution.

Yes indeed — Orwell was an optimist. There is a saying, "May you live in interesting times." It is not a benediction; it is a curse. And the times, they are so very, very interesting today.

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