Yes my friends is finally 1984, well the Orwellian kind. I remember the first 1984, back in the good old days of the Cold War and all that. But that 1984 was more of a number and not very Orwellian. It is funny I read the novel 1984 on my way to my first assignment in Germany in January 1984 and found it rather chilling. However back then it was still rather futuristic despite being written back in 1948. Orwell’s vision of surveillance and the manipulation of language didn’t seem as threatening back in 1984 because the technology wasn’t there yet but now it is.
There has been a proliferation of low cost high resolution video surveillance technology which continues to evolve at an exponential rate with corresponding advances in facial, voice and even emotional sensing technology that can have positive outcomes but in the wrong hands, particularly in the hands of terrorists but even worse governments, especially those that sacrifice freedom in the name of security. Since no government or political system is immune to corruption or without actors who are only there for their personal power or advancement of their political, social or even religious ideology these technologies are fraught with danger. They are a double edged sword with great promise for individuals and societies which can be quickly turned to the service of evil. An example is high resolution cameras linked to artificial-intelligence software analyzed the images to recognize faces, gestures and patterns of group behavior. There is the Mind’s Eye program being developed for the military which seeks to develop in machines a capability that exists only in animals: visual intelligence. Emotional sensing software is being experimented by some movie studios to judge the emotional reaction of audiences to films and face recognition software is used by Google’s Picasa, Yahoo’s FLICKR and others for file sharing and organizing. Google has also developed Googles which lets a person snap a photograph with a smartphone which then sets off an Internet search of whatever was taken. Google has refused to put facial recognition software on the phone despite user’s requests. Google realized that since smartphones can be used to take pictures of people’s faces and retrieve all kinds of personal information such as their name, occupation, address and workplace without their knowledge.
September 11th 2001 brought the nation to the realization that terrorism could occur in the United States. Now people in many other countries have dealt with terrorism of various kinds for years but for Americans it was something that happened to other people far away, or Americans serving, working or living overseas. When I was a young Army Officer we lived under the daily threat of the Red Army Faction and Baader-Meinhoff terrorists groups in Germany very narrowly avoiding being in the blast zone at the Frankfurt Army Post Exchange on November 25th 1985 when a bomb was detonated injuring 34 Americans. We turned around about 15 minutes before the blast because Judy felt ill; otherwise we would have been right in the zone. I remember getting the call from my Colonel that my Ambulance Company was on alert after this. We know what it is like to have your vehicle inspected every day going into the base and being questioned by German Police when reporting a terrorist sighting. So for us this was old hand, but September 11th tore at the soul of the American nation and I dare say that we haven’t been the same since.
We passed the Patriot Act and created new security agencies such the TSA and we greatly expanded the surveillance capabilities at home and abroad of American Intelligence and Police agencies as well as that of the military. Now I am not knocking all the things that the U.S. Government has done to try to prevent another 9-11 or worse. At the same time every new expansion of security and surveillance there is a corresponding loss of liberty and with each new law or Presidential Executive order or Directive regarding security and intelligence gathering a little more freedom is given up and a greater possibility that the very laws and measures being implemented to “protect” the populace will be used against it in the future.
Those that design the technologies which make the implementation of these laws possible are increasing in the capabilities of their innovations on an exponential basis often with the explicit help and support of the government in particular Federal and State Police agencies, intelligence agencies and the military. Data mining, aerial surveillance drones both armed and unarmed, the ever present surveillance cameras which seem to populate every public place. Add to the power of individuals using the latest smartphones to do their own spying on people and the technology which has so much promise to do good can and at some point probably will be turned against the people.
This will happen for sure after the next major terrorist attack and it matters not if there is a Democratic or Republican administration in charge. Security would be the rational and those that dissent will be dealt with in one way or another. One only has to look back at the Nazi and Soviet regimes to see how governments with far less technology were able to subjugate their people and oppress dissenters to see how easy this can happen. In the name of security and economic stability the Germans, a sizable percentage of that had little regard for the Nazis or Hitler let Hitler enact laws that gave him absolute power.
That is my concern. I like technology and love the benefits that the advances in it provide, but I am certainly aware that the technology that I so enjoy is a two edged sword which in the wrong hand can, is and will be used against the citizens of the countries that come to rely on it and draconian security laws and police procedures.
I am very security conscious. Having lived under the threat of terrorism on a daily basis in the 1980s and having served under constant threat in the far reaches of Al Anbar Province never knowing if Al Qaeda had infiltrated the Iraqi Police or Army units that I was among I fully understand the threat. At the same time I am fully cognizant of the proclivity of men in power to promote a culture of fear in which citizens willingly surrender freedom for security and in the process descend into the abyss.