Big Brother
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Big Brother, We are Watching You: An Opinion about PRISM, New Technology, and Privacy

Big Brother and Privacy

Privacy in the news

If you follow the news, it seems that many technological advances – computers, internet, emails, cell phones, and even unmanned systems – have turned against us.  Instead of tools that serve, they have become instruments that watch and track.

Leaked documents revealed widespread government intrusion into emails and telephone metadata. Senators have raised suspicions about intrusive FBI investigative techniques.  States fear Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) and are restricting police access to them. Activists groups are agitating for privacy protections.

Even Superman is annoyed. In the movie Man of Steel, he trashes a UAV that was following him, while growling, “You can’t find out where I hang up my cape.”

Made-up stuff counts

Of all these news events mentioned above, Superman’s action may be the most revealing. Since I began writing about unmanned systems and mobile computers, I have been frequently impressed with the influence of fiction on our attitudes toward new technologies.  It doesn’t matter how impractical a multi-purpose domestic unmanned system may be, everyone wants one, because they saw Rosie the Robot in The Jetsons.  American military leaders have been schooled by decades of killer robot movies to not even think about autonomous lethal applications. On the other hand, the Japanese, raised on cute cuddly cartoon robots are enthusiastically pursuing unmanned systems that mimic humans, in spite of their expense, engineering inefficiency, and lack of commercial appeal.

No imaginary work has shaped our perceptions about privacy more than 1984. In Orwell’s classic dystopian novel, personal privacy is nonexistent. An authoritarian government maintains a constant state of surveillance over each citizen, as they are constantly reminded, “Big Brother is watching you.” In every home, you not only watch the television, it watches you.

Perhaps, even more than news reports about totalitarian communist and fascist regimes, this work of fiction instilled the fear of intrusive government into generations of students who read it in English classes.  As a sign of its enduring influence, sales of 1984 spiked 5,000% on Amazon in the wake of the NSA scandals.

1984 is brilliant and Orwell was extraordinarily insightful, but his nightmare scenario omitted once crucial development. Modern technologies don’t just rob individuals of their privacy; they rob Big Brother of his as well.

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