Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Big Brother the Robot

For a time in the 1960s, George Orwell's novel 1984 was required reading in most U. S. high schools. The dystopia Orwell wrote back in 1949 described how a despotic police state could use a then-new technology called television to spy on its citizenry. Always alert to the ways that politicians tend to distort language, Orwell coined the phrase "Big Brother" to show how an intrusive and freedom-expunging government might try to put these activities in a good light. The leaders who proclaimed that "Big Brother is watching you" intended to sound reassuring, but the context of the novel makes it clear that being watched by Big Brother was the last thing most people wanted.

The fact is, we have gone a long way down the very road Orwell cautioned us about. To see what I mean, try counting the number of cameras you see in a typical day. If you go to an ATM, you can rest assured your portrait resides in some bank's data bank showing who got your cash. Any time you step into a convenience store, a grocery, hardware store, or these days any establishment bigger than a guy selling newspapers on the corner, your visage is snapped by security cameras. And if the guy selling newspapers has a cell phone, he can take your picture too.

In England, the constabulary has gone the rest of the way to 1984 by installing speakers next to cameras in public places. Right now they're being used to chastise litterbugs and other nuisance violators. Don't drop an empty fish-and-chips bag on the sidewalk in Middlesbrough—you're likely to hear a disembodied voice call out, "Will the gentleman in the blue button-down sweater and hushpuppies kindly pick up his refuse and deposit it in the nearest receptacle?" Evidently, the glares of other passersby are more effective than the presence of a bobby in making miscreants toe the line. Reaction has been varied, but since the English have already gotten used to one of the highest densities of closed-circuit TVs in the world, this next step seems likely to spread too.

It used to be argued that the Orwellian vision of spy cameras everywhere was silly, because to be effective you'd need a person watching every camera, and unless you had one half of the country spying on the other half, the system wouldn't work. That was before the age of digital video storage and analysis. Image processing technology is now so advanced that computers can be enlisted as robotic pre-screeners, serving up only the suspicious scenes to their human masters. So that argument is out the window these days. And spy robots are no longer tied to one place. At a meeting to demonstrate high-tech rescue robots at Texas A&M's Engineering Extension Service at College Station, Texas, last week, a German development called the AirRobot flew around taking pictures of imitation disaster sites and radioing them to operator Thomas Meyer. Think a toy radio-controlled helicopter, but equipped with four propellers, video, and infrared cameras. Before you rush out and buy one to fly over the nearest nude beach, be warned that Meyer does not sell to individuals—only to organizations that he considers qualified to use the technology responsibly.

And that is the question to consider: what is the responsible use of today's increasingly powerful visual spying technology? A fire chief who uses an AirRobot to find people trapped in an otherwise inaccessible location is certainly a responsible user. A bank that uses its ATM camera to catch the guy who stole your bank card—that's responsible too. So far, there haven't been many major scandals or Enron-type prosecutions based on someone misusing spy technology. The cases that have come up usually involve peeping toms who leave wireless video cameras in women's bathrooms and so on. This is bad behavior, but it isn't going to bring down the Republic.

The thing Orwell saw the Soviet Union doing, and the thing he wanted to warn the free world about, was the institutional and governmental misuse of spy hardware. In a well-functioning democracy, if the people get tired of governmental spying on them, they can do something about it, but only if they know about what's going on and if the government responds to their protests. But in dictatorships and regimes such as North Korea's, where privacy is highly restricted or simply ignored, technology is handing new weapons to those who are most happy to exploit it for their own nefarious ends.

I teach a class about electronic communications, and in the first session I define a communications system for the students. You have a true communications system only if there is a person at one end originating some information, and a person at the other end receiving it. Spy technology is a kind of communications system, although with an unaware or unwilling person on the sending end. I don't personally view the proliferation of security cameras in the U. S. as that much of a problem, mainly because the people watching them—most of them working for private firms, not the government—are generally trustworthy and have my own best interests in mind. But if we ever embark on a large-scale program that enables the government to spy on the public, I'll haul out my old paperback copy of 1984 and start comparing notes.

Sources: An article describing England's experiments with talking cameras was carried by the Canadian Broadcasting Company's website on April 4, 2007 at http://www.cbc.ca/world/story/2007/04/04/talking-cameras.html. The Texas A&M security robot meeting was featured in a New York Times online article on June 25, 2007 at http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/25/washington/25robots.html. A description of the AirRobot can be downloaded at www.securiton.eu/cms/upload/pdf/M3pdfs/englisch/WerbeflyerAirRobot_E.pdf.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting post, but I am curious what you think about the government wire tapping issues of late? Certainly those warrant consideration from you now that it is an example of the government using spy technology on its own people?