In George Orwell’s classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, the character of Big Brother is the authoritarian power that rules over the people of Oceania by surveillance and limiting civilians’ access to information to government-controlled television announcements. It’s a horribly scary concept. If George Orwell could have travelled in time, I wonder what he would have thought about our society. Would he be relieved that his fictitious dystopia did not come true, or would he say “yeah, that’s pretty close to what I thought would happen.”
This week I worked on a story about how the Ramsey County Sheriff’s office is discontinuing GangNet, and in the process of writing that story, I found out about another database that Minnesota is considering using called N-DEx. It’s a service run by the FBI’s Law Enforcement Online (LEO), and it would essentially allow information currently controlled at the state and local level to be accessed nationally.
I also found out about the License Plate Recognition (LPR) program, currently in use by some Minnesota law enforcement agencies, that takes photographs of license plates and keeps track of what cars have been where. It’s not clear whether the information gathered from LPRs is currently classified as private under the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act, or whether anyone can make a data request to a law enforcement agency to find out where a certain car has been at one time.
It’s all a bit disconcerting, honestly. All this information — what is it being used for? As Minnesota contemplates participating in N-DEx, they will also decide what safeguards they want to put into place, but will those safeguards be enough? What will prevent the abuse of this information?
At the same time, law enforcement isn’t the only Big Brother out there. Every day, I log into Facebook, I log into Twitter, and now I’ve even signed up for Google +. I enter all sorts of information, and my phone knows where I am at all times. Who knows where that information is being sent to. Advertisers? It reminds me of another piece of science fiction – the movie Minority Report. As Tom Cruise’s character walks down the street, advertisers know where he is and try to get him to come into their shops. It seemed silly when I watched the movie in 2002, but now? It doesn’t seem that far off.
Finally, another aspect of 1984 that looms as something a bit too close for comfort is Big Brother’s control of information. You might think: but hey, we’ve got more media sources than ever. That might be true, but I’m wary of the attack on net neutrality, and what will happen if companies like Comcast win out in that battle. I was also very disturbed by this week’s news that officials from the San Franciso Bay Area decided to block cell phone access at some of its rail stations to curb a protest. It’s one thing when that happened in Egypt, but now it’s happening here?
Perhaps I’m overreacting. Perhaps I read too much science fiction. But it seems to me that even if we haven’t become Oceania yet, it doesn’t hurt to keep a watchful eye on these types of things, to make sure that we maintain control over our civil liberties and privacy before they get whittled away.