Big brother, much ado about nothing

Posted on by Ben Rothke

My original review of The Road to Big Brother: One Man's Struggle Against the Surveillance Societyis on Slashdot. 

In The Road to Big Brother: One Man's Struggle Against the Surveillance Society, Ross Clark journals his struggles to avoid the myriad CCTV cameras in his native England. That's difficult given the millions of cameras in public locations there. 

Before going forward, the use of the term 'Big Brother' in both the title and throughout the book is erroneous. Big Brother has its roots in George Orwell's novel 1984 and refers to an omnipresent, seemingly benevolent figure representing the oppressive control over individual lives exerted by an authoritarian government. 

The term has been misappropriated to describe everything from legitimate crime-fighting, to surveillance cameras, to corporate e-mail and network usage monitoring. Localities that deploy CCTV cameras in public thoroughfares in the hope of combating crime are in no way indicative of the oppressive control of Orwell's Big Brother. 

Should we be concerned that such a scenario plays itself out in Ross Clark's UK or in the US? Likely no, as US government agencies are widely decentralized and isolated. Just getting the networks within a single federal agency unified is a daunting task; getting all of the agencies to have a single unified data sharing mechanism is a pipe-dream. Look at it this way: the US Department of Defense has more networks than some countries have computers." 

The Road to Big Brother details Clark's attempt to be invisible to the millions of CCTV cameras in Britain, and details other types of national & agency databases and how they can be misused. Clark notes astutely that while much data is being gathered, often the most important clues are missed, and a lack of proportion often is the result. 

Some of the books observations are flawed. In chapter two, Clark writes that VeriChip markets its RFID chips with the aim of speeding the passage of authorized people through security checks. But its Verimed chip is made for patient identification and emergency patient management in hospitals. In Chapter 11, Clark comments that Facebook is essentially a forum for drunken college students who cannot conceive that any harm could come from disporting themselves in semi-naked poses for everyone to see. There is no indication that the comment was meant to be humorous, and there are many legitimate sober uses for Facebook. 

Perhaps the worst distortion of the Big Brother hysteria, of which the book provides no source, is the claim that the CIA and FBI appears to know what airline meals a person chooses when they cross the Atlantic. Terrorists do their best to be stealthy, and will likely opt to bring their own special meal, rather than stand out and request a special one. It is not clear what the CIA and FBI hope to gain with such data. 

The book documents numerous CCTV failures, from Brighton, England to Baltimore, Maryland. Chapter 3 has a 2005 quote from the Maryland Attorney General stating that CCTV's had yet to solve a single crime. The book also repeats the problem of fuzzy CCTV images and highlights other technology failures as far back as 1998. Surveillance technology has significantly advanced in the last 3 years, let alone decade. Focusing on failures from a decade ago is in no way indicative of the state of the art, nor does it do anything to solve the problem Clark addresses. 

In the last 60 days alone, CCTV has been used to identify the alleged Craigslist Killer and shooter atWesleyan University. While Clark may not realize it, CCTV and other related technologies has indeed revolutionized law enforcement. The underlying problem is that Britain's millions of cameras were deployed in the hope that they could magically solve crime. Cameras alone achieve nothing; but CCTV combined with trained humans and other crime prevention and detection methods are a powerful set of tools that many police departments are embracing. 

The book notes that two CCTV schemes were sold to UK police in 2001 with the premise that they would eliminate crime and increase the number of visitors by 225,000 a year. Any police department that would believe such a marketing claim, without pilot testing and proof of concept should themselves be arrested for ineptitude. 

The book would be better off quoting this year's CCTV successes, rather than those of obsolete equipment. As to the fuzzy image problem; newer, more powerful and often inexpensive cameras easily and quickly solves that predicament. 

All is not lost on the book. Chapter 8 — Me and My ID, in which Clark documents how ineffective national identification cards are. National ID cards are all the rage and are being deployed in the hope that they will reduce terrorism, illegal immigration and other of society's ills. Clark notes that even if national ID cards were able to identify everyone correctly, and that is a huge assumption, it is still not clear what they would achieve. National ID's have been touted to reduce insurance fraud, but medical insurance fraud is often executed not by false identification, rather by patients lying about their circumstances. 

The book touches upon, but does not really answer, nor go into enough details on why people allow such pervasive use of electronic surveillance technologies to seamlessly enter society. Be it CCTV cameras that film public parks or attempt to catch speeding drivers; many are deployed with little to no protestations. 

While Big Brother achieved oppressive control over individuals, the real danger of surveillance systems is that they can easily be misused. Rather than achieving their crime fighting goals, they will mislead police with myriad false positives. Part of Clark's frustration is likely that the UK Police believe in some sort of CCTV Kool-Aid that their collogues in the US have not consumed. Why that is so prevalent in the UK is something that Clark doesn't address. 

The Road to Big Brother: One Man's Struggle Against the Surveillance Society should have been a book that details the problems with a surveillance society, but often reads like it emanates from the ministry of misinformation.

Ben Rothke

Senior Information Security Manager, Tapad



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