Thursday, March 31, 2011

I - Face it, 1984 was an underestimate.

Google making app that would identify people's faces

George Orwell wrote the book "1984" to highlight the decline in personal privacy and the rise of government intrusion into the lives of the citizens. Somehow I think he was a bit conservative in his evaluation of what was going to come. When I read an article like this - knowing that the technology is not only out there, but being widely used by police forces and businesses already - I have to wonder just how soon we will be without freedom of any sort other than what the "powers that be" are willing to grant us.

We already have red light cameras that identify our license plate and mail us a ticket. How long before every illegal action is filmed and the perpetrator identified by the computer? Sounds OK, until you think about the number of people who look similar. Eyewitness testimony is the least reliable when it comes to identifying criminals, is the computer going to do better? More to the point, what else can be done with this?

The government knows what car you drive and where you live, thanks to DMV records. Combine that with every other bit of data about you that is floating around and there is reason to start getting paranoid. Do you own a gun? The state knows that, even if you think that they don't. It's quite simple, if you have ever bought a hunting license or gotten a concealed weapons permit they can be pretty confident that you own one or more. Now lets put a camera outside every gun store and we have an even easier way to identify that particular dangerous element.

Maybe you just like to try to tweak the local politicos on one subject or another. With a bit of technology they can follow you from one surveillance camera to another until they catch you doing something they don't like - and it doesn't take any people to do it, just a faceless computer. Now it is cheap and easy to keep tabs on all sorts of people you previously would have ignored. Eventually you can monitor everyone in the country to make sure they aren't doing anything questionable (by government standards).

But the government is only half of this equation. The other part is that this is very useful for companies trying to sell their products. They can now cross-reference you to your interests for more tightly targeted advertising and then use what they learn about you from other sources to manipulate you to buy (or to support them in other ways - think of subtly coercing the majority to forgive BP for the Gulf oil spill). The more they know about you the more they can influence you. Once again, this doesn't take a single person to do it, it is all done by a computer program mining the internet for data about you.

These things are here. We can't un-ring the bell, we just have to learn how to adapt to a society where it is virtually impossible to do anything that is not only recorded somewhere, but is actively used to track you, manipulate you and quite possibly to oppress you.

Orwell missed by a few years, but in a lot of ways he was a pretty good prophet.