In1949, George Orwell wrote 1984, a novel describing a nightmarish future in which England, fallen to socialism and renamed Airstrip One, is ruled with an iron fist by an oppressive, authoritarian government. In the novel, Orwell describes how, with adequate technology, a regime could dominate the masses through constant surveillance. Specifically, in the dystopian nightmare of 1984, “Big Brother” monitors every citizen 24 hours a day through the television set in their living room. Ultimately, Orwell’s vision never truly came to pass, as in the end it is simply impossible for a government to monitor every individual at all times. However, as surveillance cameras become increasingly inexpensive and the ability to share media over the internet becomes increasingly efficient, the actions of everyday individuals have come more and more under the eye of public scrutiny. In today’s world, any individual walking down the street can reasonably expect to be videotaped by anything ranging from remote surveillance cameras, to roving Google Street View vans, to anybody carrying a cell phone purchased within the last five years and to have that video posted online. As such, those who commit shameful, illegal, or simply bizarre acts can and must accept that their actions may be broadcasted to and scrutinized by an anonymous, faceless horde of users.
Ironically, England, the setting for Orwell’s 1984 has become one of the single most disturbing examples of the loss of privacy in the modern world. It is currently estimated that there is one camera for every fourteen British citizens. Recently, the British government has quite literally set aside £400 million to install 24 hour surveillance cameras in the homes of 20,000 families in order to ensure that children attend school, go to bed on time, and eat proper meals. Even better, the government plans to hire private security contractors to perform home checks upon the families in question. The irony is beyond overwhelming.
However, it has nevertheless become increasingly obvious that no one government can monitor an entire population at all times. Thankfully, the anonymous masses of the internet have proven to be more than willing to fill in the gaps the government leaves behind. As such, we increasingly see “Big Brother” being replaced with your actual big brother (and your neighbors, co-workers, and complete strangers). In England, one program in particular, called Internet Eyes, would have sent George Orwell into fatal convulsive seizures. The program, which will go live in Stratford-upon-Avon in late November, aims to harness the power of Web 2.0 by directly connecting live feed from surveillance cameras to a vast swarm of users. The theory behind the program is that with more eyes watching the footage more crimes can be averted. The website is being promoted as a sort of game which everyday individuals can play in their spare time. Users, who will be allowed to register for free, will be allowed to view real-time random video feeds from participating establishments across the country. Any viewer who spots suspicious activity from a specific camera can anonymously inform the camera owner. Users will then receive a certain amount of points based upon the quality of the alert. The user with the most points at the end of the month will receive a £1000 prize. Fantastically, Tony Morgan, one of the founders of Internet Eyes, claims that it will “give people something better to do than watching Big Brother when everyone is asleep.” Put another way: why watch Big Brother when you can be Big Brother?
However, in the end, this website is not simply another game. Rather, it is a breach of privacy more distasteful than anything ever imagined by George Orwell. While Internet Eyes may very well be an effective way of preventing vandalism and shoplifting it also encourages private citizens to spy on their neighbors. Furthermore, if previous cases have shown us anything it is that the scope and potential damage of public scrutiny can be far greater than that of a government investigation or surveillance. While Internet Eyes will in fact connect users to random video feeds it is impossible to eliminate the possibility that Internet Eyes could reveal potentially damaging private information (i.e. sexual orientation, political affiliation, etc) to one’s loved ones, co-workers, or neighbors. How could an individual stage a protest knowing that his or her boss might not only disapprove, but be watching him? As such, it is nearly impossible to argue that websites like Internet Eyes, and the general trend towards increased scrutiny in the Web 2.0 world, are increasingly having a chilling effect upon free speech and expression.
However, in the end the question is not necessarily straightforward at all. The same features that make constant surveillance and public scrutiny such an insidious problem in today’s world have proven to be an incredibly powerful and valuable tool in fighting oppression across the globe. Easy access to video cameras and internet access, and the rise of the generative Web 2.0, have ensured that, in the modern world, those who are oppressed are finding it increasingly easy to record and disseminate their messages. As such, in the end, we need to find some way to strike a balance between the benefits of a free and open internet and the dangers of the constant threat of surveillance.
How can we accomplish that? Quite frankly, I’m not sure, but this seems like a fantastic bet.