Big Brother is Watching You…and that ain’t all bad!


In 1949 George Orwell published 1984, a book that has come to represent the essence of a draconian, bureaucratic socialist police state in the person of “Big Brother.”

As we have ridden a technology wave into the twenty-first century, a large part of our private lives – some even say our individual freedoms – has been subsumed into an ever-growing set of databases in computers and servers the world over. Since 9-11 we have collected information even more intensely, hoping thereby to save off the next big terrorist disaster. In effect, we have invited Big Brother into our lives in a way that Gorge Orwell never could have imagined. And we have only just begun.

For example, Remington ELSAG Law Enforcement Systems makes and markets an infrared camera with a built-in brain that captures license plate images and matches them in milliseconds to police records. Currently this system is used by 250 police agencies in twenty-three states and in New York City and Washington, DC. The ELSAG system uses algorithms that instantly turn images into data. This system will soon guard airports, military bases and other federal facilities, as well as crack down on the drug trade, robberies, and other crime hinging on stolen cars – and will be especially useful in locating and tracking known terrorist suspects.

As law-abiding individuals we are much safer because of the growing use of this system, but we also have Big Brother looking over our shoulders every time we leave our garage.

Another area currently being deployed is enhanced use of eyes-in-the-sky, typically satellite-based observations platforms, some able to resolve an object as small as a suitcase, such as DigitalGlobe’s new satellite that can collect 750,000 sq km of imagery every day. House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson of Mississippi (D) wrote to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff in September, 2007, calling for “…a moratorium on the [scheduled October 1 launch of the National Applications Office] until the many constitutional, legal and organizational questions it raises are answered.” The National Applications Office is a clearing house for expanded output of imagery to police, border security. and other law-enforcement outfits, and is, in the opinion of many observers, absolutely necessary to ensure the continuing safety of our citizens.

Lockheed Skunk Works Chief Scientist Dr. Ned Allen recently described a radically different approach to the eye-in-the-sky problem. They are developing a device that resembles a Silver Maple Seed called a Nano Air Vehicle – NAV for short. This little guy is designed to carry interchangeable payload modules the size of an aspirin tablet. It can be released in swarms over a disaster area or battlefield, where it can find bodies, contaminated areas, or can supply detailed intelligence. This NAV can fly at 10 m/s for a kilometer, and then slow down to less than ½ m/s, or even hover, and collect information which it transmits back to the operator, before returning for refueling and redeployment. It can operate independently inside buildings.

The Nano Air Vehicle – NAV

The NAV obviously is a good candidate for hostage situations, or for getting detailed visual and audio information on the activities inside an identified terrorist cell – or, complain some civil libertarian activists, can be used to look over your innocent shoulder.

Boeing is developing a border protection system that features ground-based and tower-mounted sensors, cameras and radar plus high-speed communications, command and control equipment and devices that detect tunnels, all in an effort to secure our national borders. These efforts, too, are being resisted by the civil libertarian types, who seem to worry more about their possible use against U.S. citizens that they do about border security.

Northrop Grumman Corp. is developing an airport surveillance system that already can scan all ten fingerprints or an iris from five yards. If deployed on a city street in several years, this system will be able to record the identity of each passing person who isn’t wearing gloves or sunglasses. This potential is driving civil libertarians to resist its airport deployment, which results, of course, in longer airport delays for the flying public.

Deploying such a system on city streets may spur sales of dark glasses and light-weight gloves, and could also lead to the public vilification by concerned citizens of individuals wearing dark glasses and light-weight gloves. The social implications and possibilities seem endless.

The bottom line is compromise. Either we accept increased risk, eventually living our lives as do the Israelis, in constant fear of being blown up or otherwise killed, or we accept a potential invasion of our personal privacy, and rely upon the essential good will of those we have appoi
nted to protect us from the bad guys.

Speaking for myself, I’m quite happy with the compromise. In my normal activities, I simply don’t care if the police can establish that I was walking down a particular street at a particular time, since I live my life within the law. If I ever would need to go somewhere surreptitiously, I am willing to take an alternate route, or wear dark glasses and light-weight gloves.

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