term ‘Big Brother’ has entered our lexicon and is widely used throughout
society today. As I am sure you are aware, the term comes from the title of
George Orwell’s 1949 fictional novel by the same name where the residents of
the fictional Oceania are under constant surveillance via telescreens.

the term is loosely thrown around, I wonder how close our current society is to
that imagined by Orwell. Consider some of the current technology in place.
Businesses and homes across the country have an incredible number of hours of
high quality CCTV footage of normal everyday activities. Add in the Police and
government video systems and it is hard to imagine many places where you aren’t
being recorded. Facial recognition software is now at the level that one face
can be compared to a database of faces at the rate of 36 million faces per
second and an image only needs to comprise of 40 pixels by 40 pixels for
reliable detection. Movements of an individual can be tracked even in images of
large crowds. Modern technology from law enforcement agencies allows number
plates to be tracked and instant checks performed on registrations. The
technology is so good that a mobile camera can scan four traffic lanes provided
the traffic is moving at no more than 240km/h – and presumably if a vehicle is
travelling faster than 240km/h then it is pretty easy to spot there is an
issue. Our credit and debit cards can be used to paint a trail of our movements
and see where we are shopping. Phone metadata can be used to track movements of
individuals while in the US the mobile carriers responded to 1.3 million law
enforcement requests last year for subscriber information including text
messages and phone location data.

what we see in the movies – in particular when a geek sitting at a computer
will hit the magical ‘enhance image’ button – the resolution capabilities and
data requirements of high quality satellite imagery means that governments are
not yet at the level of having constant high-quality images of every piece of
the planet but there are companies who are delivering something similar in
specific areas. Some cities in the US have contracted organisations to fly
planes above major crime areas or over major events. These are high enough that
it isn’t obvious they are there but the resolution, at 192 megapixels, can
track movements of individuals.

an idea that seems like it comes straight from Orwell’s thoughts, street lights
are now being rolled out in some US cities – backed by the Department of Energy
– that not only act as surveillance cameras but are also capable of being used
as public address systems and can also record conversations.

we be worried about all of this? The logic is that if I am a law-abiding honest
citizen then I shouldn’t have anything to worry about. I am sure you remember
the tragedy of Jill Meagher’s murder in 2012. The first suspect in the murder
was her husband. The Police later apologised for their treatment of Tom Meagher
as he was trying to deal with the disappearance of his wife while being treated
like a criminal. Tom was quickly eliminated by tracking his mobile phone data
and comparing that to Jill’s. The killer was eventually caught by the same
method with the additional information provided by number plate recognition
from a toll on Moreland Road in Melbourne. When confronted with the
information, the killer had no way to explain the information and eventually

was clearly a win for the collection of data but what many people worry about
is all of this information ending up in the wrong hands. Someone with criminal
intent may well be able to track information of a potential victim to learn
their movements and plan their attack. If George Orwell was brought back to
life right now and looked at the society we live in I am sure he would say the
only thing he got wrong in his novel was the name. Maybe instead of Nineteen
Eighty-Four it should have been called Two Thousand and Sixteen!

Mathew Dickerson

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