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Big Brother is not who you think he is

Afraid of Google snooping on your data and the NSA reading your email conversations? You’ve got Big Brother all wrong. 


Greg Stevens


Big Brother is in the news a lot. Sometimes he appears as the National Security Agency, collecting massive amounts of communications data and “listening in on phone calls.” At other times, he takes shape as a corporate giant like Google or Facebook, quietly collecting everything that you put on the Internet and doing who-knows-what with it. Sometimes he even appears as a government spy lurking in online multiplayer game environments, stealthily interacting with you and gathering information about you while you play.

But all of this media attention, so focused on a few of the most sensational issues, has skewed the public’s idea of what the bulk of our surveillance culture really looks like. If you are primarily scared of Google and Facebook, then you are scared of the wrong companies. If you are mainly worried about people listening to your conversations, then you are worried about the wrong thing.

Most importantly, the stereotypical image of executives or agents in the sterile corporate or government office buildings—sitting at desks while reading your private emails, surrounded by room-sized computers and walls covered with monitors from spy cameras—is hopelessly out of date.

That’s not to say that those rooms or people don’t exist. But that’s not what the bulk of surveillance looks like.

Let’s take a moment to ponder four of the most common misconceptions about “Big Brother.”

Myth #1: Google and Facebook are the scariest companies

Everybody knows Google and Facebook. They have products everyone uses. Moreover, they have enormous amounts of data about you, although admittedly it is mostly data that you have chosen to voluntarily put on the Internet.

The sheer volume of information that people put on social media, however, makes it scary to think that it might be abused. As a result, people naturally want to keep an eye on how these companies treat our information.

But in the broader scope of surveillance culture, these companies are by no means the scariest. They deal in a minor subset of information about the world: communication. They know about messages that are posted for the world to see, or messages that are sent from person to person.

There are other companies that have the capacity to gather and examine, in excruciating detail, information that is much more personal than your text messages and tweets. They are companies that you never “log in to” and that you don’t have an account with. You most likely are not even aware of when they are around.

Avigilon is an end-to-end security company specializing in video surveillance. Its 29 megapixel high-powered digital video cameras can cover an entire football stadium, with high enough resolution to perform facial recognition on each individual there, with only six cameras. If you’ve been to a football game at a stadium with an Avigilon security system, then there is probably someone out there who could look up exactly how many drinks you had and whether or not you put ketchup on your hot dogs,.

Cisco has cameras on roads and in airports across the world. Its cameras are specifically designed to allow programmers to create custom software for the cameras to interact with. From facial recognition and object detection, to automatically reading labels and brand names, these systems gather huge amounts of data from you every time you drive or walk by.

Human Recognition Systems is a smaller company that focuses on using biometric data to identify people in airports. It deals in iris scanning and other biometric measurements. In Gatwick airport, if you are not checking any luggage, you don’t even need to present a ticket any more—as long as you let them scan your eyeball.

These companies—just used as examples, since there are many more like them—are on the cutting edge of technology that makes it possible to record and analyze massive amounts of data about you. This data is, in many ways, much more personal than your emails and Facebook status updates. This is information about every detail of where you go and what you do.

Myth #2: Big Brothers cares mainly about your phone calls and emails

Don't worry so much about what you say on the phone. Photo via starmanseries/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Photo via starmanseries/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Because the media is so focused on websites, social media, and the NSA, emails and phone calls are often the first thing people think of when they worry about privacy and spying. In reality, of all of the things that are being recorded about you every single day, your emails and phone calls are probably the least interesting things about you.

Cisco boldly declares that it is interested in much more than communications, with its catchphrase: “the Internet of things.” They are more concerned with objects in the real world than they are with mere communications. Why deal with something as trivial as messages, after all, when you can both monitor and even control the way that physical objects interact in the world?

For example, the “Cisco Urban Security Design Guide” outlines in detail how its systems can allow airports to immediately detect when someone has left a bag unattended and can use facial recognition to track people as they move from terminal to terminal. The company’s “Traffic Engineering Management” system is designed to wirelessly connect an entire network of video cameras across a city and feed detailed data into a central system that can make decisions that impact the flow of traffic.

The sheer power of systems like these is almost difficult to grasp. With the volume and resolution of the data they collect, they could achieve some truly amazing feats. These are the types of systems that will be needed, for example, in a future where self-driving cars must be aware of the traffic patterns across an entire city in order to calculate the best route to take.

On the other hand, it also means that the same intelligent automated systems could be used, if someone were so inclined, to find out every place you have ever driven in the city and how fast you were driving to get there.

In theory, these systems only care about aggregate “patterns” in the large-scale movement of people. But the cameras can still see your face and your license plate. Americans have learned, through media coverage about phone call metadata and the NSA, that when a company claims that it is only collecting aggregate “non-personal” data there is a kind of white lie being told. The fact is, with the massive amounts of data available to these systems, almost anything can be used for personal identification if enough computing power is applied to the problem.

Myth #3: Big Brother sits in an office and wears a suit

 Common misconception Photo by Victor1558/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Photo by Victor1558/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Another misconception about Big Brother is more social in nature, and although it is not necessarily scary or alarming, some people may find it downright creepy. People are used to the old-fashioned image of a security professional holed up in an office somewhere either watching data feeds or examining databases. But surveillance has come a long way since the times of the overweight security guard falling asleep in a room full of monitors.

Take, for example, Avigilon Control Centre software. It was designed with the help of gaming programmers, and you can tell. It’s flashy and easy to use, letting you swipe live camera views on and off your screen, and digitally zoom on any image without disrupting the continuous recording of the entire image in the background.

If you are a member of the security team for a company, you can access it from your laptop at home. Sitting on your couch, with your favorite television show playing in the background, you can easily track live streams from a dozen cameras in an office building across town. With the same control panel interface, you can lock and unlock doors for people. With the right hardware installed, you could even activate a speaker system to talk to the people that you are spying on.

You could do all of this without the need to ever go to the office or put on a suit.

In some sense, of course, this shouldn’t be surprising. We live in a culture where more and more people are working from home. Young employees value their time and their freedom, so employers are increasingly opening up positions for people who can do their job from where they live. The slick and intuitive, almost game-like user interface of the Avigilon Control Centre just follows in this same trend.

Myth #4: Big Brother watches you in real time

Screenshot from Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times
Screenshot from Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times

All joking aside, this leads to the final myth about Big Brother: He’s watching you in real time. Nobody has time for that: not the NSA, not Google, and not the 20something kid working security detail at home in his underwear. There is just too much information out there to effectively monitor it all while it is happening.

In fact, psychological studies have shown that the “traditional” scenario of the security guard sitting in a room full of monitors is stunningly inefficient. It takes less than half an hour of staring at mind-numbingly boring video camera feeds before a security agent just tunes out and wouldn’t even notice if something unusual did happen on the screens.

This is where cutting edge developments by companies like Avigilon and Cisco come into play once again. Using its proprietary database coding and storage system, Avigilon has the ability to scan and search video data with incredible power and accuracy. Suppose, for example, you know that something was taken out of a drawer in one particular office room within the last five days. Using the Avigilon Control Center, you can highlight that drawer on the video feed and tell the system to search for any unusual movement within that region during that time. It will immediately spit out whatever times are worth investigating further.

Cisco has also partnered with software system developers on projects ranging from automated virtual tripwires to automatic detection of different types of objects or movement in public places. In all of these cases, the computer is performing massive calculations on the video data to detect certain types of object or activity, so that it can alert people to pay attention only when it is needed.

Information paranoia?

So, should you be scared of Avigilon’s video technology, Cisco’s “Internet of objects,” or biometric scanning by companies like Human Recognition Systems? They have not been accused of any misdeeds. There is nothing to suggest that they are abusing their power or their technology. In fact, a lot of good can come from having massive amounts of detailed surveillance data at your fingertips.

Avigilon is particularly fond of an anecdote where the owners of a stadium were able to defend themselves against accusations of serving beer to a minor. The stadium’s high-powered Avigilon cameras had captured with perfect clarity the entire event: the mother buying the beer and handing it to the child, and the child carefully carrying it across the seating in the stadium and handing it to his father. Thus, a day’s worth of bad publicity for the stadium was avoided.

The intentions of these companies may be good. There is no reason in theory that you should be concerned about them. Then again, there is no reason that you should be scared of Google and Facebook, either. All of these companies are, in theory, if not economic practice, just trying to find a way to allow technology to make your life more convenient.

But if you are the sort of person who is worried about Google and Facebook simply because of the sheer volume of data that they have about you as an individual, then these other companies should also grab your attention. No matter how benign the intentions or use, these companies are enabling the collection of massive amounts of data that relate directly to where you go and what you do in the world.

Unlike Facebook or Google, these companies are operating in the background. You never know when an Avigilon camera might be pointed at you, or when a Cisco camera is tracking your car on the road. You never “log in” to these companies. But they are still there, and they are watching you.

Whether you are scared of them or not, they are part of today’s Big Brother.

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