Big brother is watching you

The dystopian society depicted in George Orwell’s novel 1984 and his well-known phrase “big brother is watching you” implying relentless surveillance have a particularly grim relevance in today’s world. We are observed closely everywhere — be careful what you do and follow accepted practice and you are safe. Sure, but the growing ‘watching’ by what seems not just the government but the whole world becomes a nightmare of fear of fraudulent exploitation through easily available personal information garnered and misused via the Internet and other Artificial Intelligence–enabled means. Strangely enough, however, encroachment of privacy is nothing new, nor can its proliferation be blamed solely on advancements in AI. It’s all just a continuing extension of the way we have always been, vastly compounded by fast-advancing technology — old wine in new bottles. Only, wine is not so dangerous.

In the film Social Dilemma, the tech pundits who develop the technology used in social networking warn us of the latter’s harmful effect on people. The extent to which it can affect your life is startling. This increasing vulnerability to rapidly developing methods of communication and information obtention invites some serious questions. How much of personal independence and privacy must we sacrifice at the altar of ‘progress’? “All human beings have three lives: public, private, and secret” says Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a winner of the Nobel prize for literature. Lamentably, there is now just the public life with private details and vital statistics laid bare through anything from nanny cams to cyberstalking to data mining. Throughout history humankind has sought knowledge to enable the achievement of objectives and as an end in itself, which has driven the evolution of civilization. But today, in this quest there is much more to reckon with, in our subjugation to AI.

Every smart kid asserts that the Internet observes and manipulates you. Ordering pizza online? Hey presto, you are offered half a dozen bewildering alternatives. Some even claim that occasionally, just thinking of ordering something is followed instantly by the sudden appearance of suitable choices! Hmm… some sort of clandestine avant garde telepathic detection maybe? Not so bizarre if you consider the recent overwhelming progress in these areas. According to a report in The Independent, leading scientists say neural interfaces that link human brains to computers using artificial intelligence will allow people to read others’ thoughts. The Royal society indicates the benefits of such technology, apparently, but warns that there could be severe risks if it falls into the wrong hands. It seems only sensible that methods of blocking undesired telepathy and monitoring of other privacy-violating software should be seriously considered.

In view of the unparalleled ease of confidentiality infringement today, steps to safeguard personal space become essential. As Edward Snowden says, “Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.” Increasing use of commercial cybersecurity software, customizing confidentiality agreements, curbing excessive intrusion of the government or becoming a complete maverick shunning all virtual transactions seem to be some of the best options to guard against information leaks, from a layman’s point of view. However, former American president James Madison explains that the invasion of private rights is chiefly to be feared not from acts of the government contrary to the will of the people, but acts of the government in which it is merely an instrument of its constituents. The most potent recourse to preserve privacy, therefore, is the will of a nation’s people to use the government as their tool for the purpose.

Though the transformation of the acquisition of essential personal information for routine work purposes into a situation of potential misuse, abetted by rapidly advancing cybertechnology may be merely another manifestation of age-old human traits of inquisitiveness and greed, it clearly cannot be left unchecked. It rests on the community to use the administrative authority of the nation to check this growing threat. Importantly, where the line should be drawn that separates the preservation of privacy and the use of beneficial technology is the question that faces us now.

I am an editor and mentor with almost two decades of experience.