terms of sales and critical acclaim, any list of the Top 100 novels of all time
will feature one particular book published on 8 June 1949. As a piece of
fiction, it displayed an incredible imagination by an author in his prime and I
am sure he could not have imagined how, in just 67 years, our technological
world would progress to so closely match that of the fictional state of
Oceania. Unfortunately, Eric Arthur Blair, better known as George Orwell, died
just 227 days after the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four and the world was
robbed of the opportunity to experience more of his thought-provoking writings.

Orwell’s totalitarian state, all of the citizens are under constant
surveillance, mainly via telescreens. Of course the term ‘Big Brother’ has entered
our lexicon and is widely used throughout society today.

am sure that the novel received criticism when it was released because of the
ridiculous idea that constant surveillance by ‘Big Brother’ was even possible.
Keep in mind that mainstream television was launched in Australia seven years
after the release of this novel so Orwell’s concepts were borne from creative
rather than practical ideas.

we start to closely examine the world we live in today, we realise that Orwell
didn’t actually go far enough. The surveillance in place in our modern society
makes Orwell’s society seem idyllic.

some of the 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 a face 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 the currency of 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. We have all read articles discussing the concerns of many people with
their phone metadata and who can use that information 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 fitted with 192 megapixel cameras above major crime areas or over major
events. These are high enough that it isn’t obvious they are there but the
resolution 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. Generally that logic
seems OK. I am sure you remember the tragedy of Jill Meagher’s murder in 2012
with the four-year anniversary occurring last Friday. 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 – tracking his mobile phone movements and data and comparing
that to Jill’s and adding in number plate recognition from a toll on Moreland
Road in Melbourne. When confronted with the information, the killer had no way
of explain the information and eventually confessed.

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.

Scroll to Top