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It’s A Sci Fi World: The Surveillance Society

If you need proof that we do indeed live in a science fiction world, just take a look around. You’ll see video cameras everywhere: at red lights, in police cars and in many stores and businesses. The depths to which cameras have invaded our daily lives would make the government from Orwell’s 1984 salivate. For a very interesting look at just how ‘observed’ we are, the current issue of Popular Mechanics covers the technology behind the observing with Surveillance Society: New High-Tech Cameras Are Watching You.

It’s scary to think that, whenever you step out of your house, you’ll probably end up in some video system somewhere, easily trackable while you’re in view of the cameras. Popular Mechanics looks at a wide range of technology that is used for surveillance, and it’s not just the government. Businesses are using it as well to keep track of you. I found the ankle level scanner at the grocery store to be unexpected, but then I wondered why it hadn’t been done before. Wal-Mart, I believe, has been thinking of, and my have entered a trial, using RFID tags on their merchandise. This would allow them to track where every single piece of merchandise is in the store, enable ‘whole cart’ checkouts, and, of course, keep an eye out for shoplifters. The problem, as shown in the article, is when this data is used for non-intended purposes. The example given is EZ Pass tags being used by law enforcement to track people. You can imagine the authorities obtaining the data from Wal-Mart to track what stuff you bought and when. This unholy alliance is rather frightening, but I’m not sure how you can stop it. Are your purchases a ‘private’ matter? How about the routes you take while you drive? The feeling I get from Popular Mechanics is one of a combination of 1984 and Snowcrash, with business working, willingly or not, with the government to track your every move.

I don’t have a problem with the technology per se. I find the actual tech to be extremely cool. For instance, the laser license plate reader, which can scan 10K plates in an hour is an incredible piece of technology, making a police officer’s job easier. In addition to red light cameras, many video cameras are being used for visual surveillance. The twist being that there is too much video for even a team of humans to monitor. Thus we get specialized software for analyzing video and tracking a person’s movements while they are in video range. As cameras become more prevalent, we risk becoming encapsulated in a technological panopticon where our every move is recorded. And don’t think that just because a private business has a video of you that the authorities won’t be able to get if they really want it. In Ken MacLeod’s Execution Channel, Britain’s ubiquitous camera network is used to keep tabs on suspects wherever they go, even into stores and restaurants, no warrent required. As technology advances, the cameras will get smaller with higher resolution, and the computing power behind them will get faster and better able to discern individuals. As I said, from a tech standpoint this is impressive, from a personal standpoint, not so much.

So what can we do about it? I don’t really have the answers. In 1999, David Brin released a non-fiction book called The Transparent Society. It’s an interesting and sobering read, especially being almost 10 years old, where Brin discusses the role of tech in a surveillance society and what we can do to live with it because technology will advance, we can’t stop it, so we have to live with it. His solution is to make everything ‘transparent’. If a law is passed, or technology is used, to increase surveillance on people, then the people should be able to see how that law or technology is being used, a sort of who watches the watcher idea, where we watch the watchers. Also, if those in power pass a law, say, to place cameras on every street corner, then those cameras should be placed at every street corner around the politician’s houses and everyone should have access to the video feeds. The only safe zone would be a person’s house, where surveillance would be prohibited. This sounds like a good idea, but I’m not sure you could effectively implement it. The government certainly will balk at giving access to its surveillance to the people, and they certainly don’t want us seeing what they are up to behind closed doors.

Glenn Reynolds, of Instapundit fame, takes a ‘man on the street’ approach, with his related article Watching the Watchers: Why Surveillance Is a Two-Way Street. His take is similar to Brin’s, only this time, the average joe takes it upon himself to watch those in authority. As technology advances, video cameras and cellphone cameras will become better, smaller and cheaper, allowing many people to opportunity have a video recording device on their person at all times. This makes it easy for the public to ‘watch’ those in authority as they go about their daily business. You can imagine that the authorities don’t like this, but they have the means to watch us, and if they’re doing their business in public, we should have the right to record them. Yes, there are issues here, but I would err on the side of recording vs. not recording. Everyone should act as if they are being watched at all times. I see a point in time where the public’s ability to watch the authorities will be just as good, if not better, than theirs, and that’s a good thing.

Mike Elgan at Computerworld goes one step further and says I want to live in a surveillance society. The basic premise being that we should make public what should be public, and using technology to do. Not just arming the general populace with recording devices, but making it legal, and proper, to record all sorts of situations, especially those involving the police and politicians. Page 2 has an interesting list of situations where recordings, clandestine or not, should be legal. I especially like the politican/lobbiest idea, though I think the penalty may be too harsh.

If you could ask someone from 20 years ago, say from 1984, what they thought the future would be like, I doubt they would have described the situation today. 1984 got the ball rolling, but government’s don’t have the ever present surveillance as described by Orwell, yet. Various cyberpunk novels describe the world as being run by evil or greedy corporations whose employees lives are ruled by those corporations, but we’re not there yet either. The closest story to today that I can think of is The Execution Channel, and that’s because it was written within the last couple of years. I can’t think of any more right off the top of my head, can you?

But maybe we don’t need stories, we’re living in one right now. One where we can change the ending if we so choose. I don’t have any deep points to make here, but it amazes me how today’s reality could have been a fictional setting for an earlier work of science fiction. These are just some things that make me realize that we do live in a science fiction world, even if most people don’t notice.

About JP Frantz (2322 Articles)
Has nothing interesting to say so in the interest of time, will get on with not saying it.

4 Comments on It’s A Sci Fi World: The Surveillance Society

  1. For a fictional treatment of these issues (Panopticon, surveillance, being on/off the grid, etc.), I highly recommend The Traveler and The Dark River by John Twelve Hawks.

  2. Nice thoughtful piece. I’m a huge fan of The Transparent Society, although there are many other issues on which Brin and I would most definitely not see eye to eye. But unless you want to suggest rolling back the advancement of technology (which isn’t going to happen, unless there’s some sort of apocalyptic event that ensures technology is the last thing on our minds), there’s no alternative but to embrace sousveillance. I don’t mind being watched, as long as I can watch the watchers, and watch what the watchers are watching. πŸ˜‰

  3. You folks might also check out Stross’ Panopticon Singularity.

  4. Good call, Trey – Stross knows his noodles. If you like that sort of thing (and as we’re having a little mutual recommendations fest right here!), check out Jamais Cascio, if you haven’t already.

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