Forget Big Brother, Little Brother is Everywhere

Cameras and the totalitarian state aren’t a new combination but today’s Wall Street Journal has an interesting take on the problem. In its story about Cisco’s role in $2.4 billion, 500,000-camera pilot project to run surveillance for the city of Chongqing, we see technology coming to the aid of a Communist government. They’re building a network ostensibly to monitor crime but one that would easily be turned into a panopticon of the population. The story reads like something straight out of George Orwell’s 1984 or Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. And the tone is one of mild shock that an American corporation would profit by advancing totalitarian aims.

The myth in the West is that technology frees us. Only when that power is put in the hands of an unfree political system can it do harm. To that point, the Journal shows us that surveillance as an industry is stagnant in the free market West but growing rapidly in totalitarian China. Not even the riot and revolution torn Middle East is keeping pace with Sino surveillance:

China has become the fastest growing market for surveillance equipment, although it isn’t yet the biggest, according to IMS Research, a U.K. firm that studies the market. The surveillance markets in the U.S. and Europe are growing at single-digit rates while surveillance-related revenue in China is growing at 23% a year.

But this nightmare of modernity has an interesting post-modern twist.The WSJ points out that only a portion of the cameras are being installed by the government itself. However, the more consequential networking of the cameras and their software control remains in the hands of Big Brother:

Chongqing’s government has said it plans to invest more than $800 million of its own in building the Peaceful Chongqing system. Another $1.6 billion is coming from other, unspecified sources, the city has said. Hikvision’s president, Hu Yangzhong, said in an interview that government funds would go toward building the central surveillance network and installing a portion of the cameras, while more cameras would be installed by owners of residences, office buildings and others—all of which would be linked to the network.

China’s obsession with public order is no secret. The tendency isn’t even exclusive to Communist governments like Beijing or even Chongqing. Capitalistic Singapore isn’t a bastion free expression either. But there is a counter-trend that may be equally unsettling even if it has no obvious villain for us to focus on.

The recent riots in Vancouver show that Big Brother might not be the only — or even the most invasive — surveillance force in contemporary life. Where the Chinese are harnessing security cameras installed by businesses and individuals, Vancouver’s citizens mounted their own vigilante justice brigade using Facebook and Twitter.

The riot erupted as soon as the final horn sounded to end game seven of the Stanley Cup final, where the Boston Bruins defeated the hometown Vancouver Canucks 4-0. The Twittersphere was filled with updates about the game throughout the evening, and once the rioting began one could see tweets monitoring the situation for hours afterward. Twitter users were sending messages outlining what was going on in the downtown core, from cars being lit on fire to where police were having standoffs with rioters. […]

Savvy users are taking photos of rioters and are sending them to news agencies and the local police to help them identify those doing the damage to the city. Of course, many of those who are causing the problems are also taking photos of themselves, which may eventually find their way into authorities’ hands. […]

Facebook may also wind up playing a huge role in figuring out who was involved in the riot, as many digital camera and phones were used to take photos of those participating. It is very likely that authorities may gain access to these images to aid them in finding out who should be charged for being part of the chaos

Indeed, that’s exactly what did happen afterwards. Facebook and Twitter were temporarily deputized to apprehend the rioters.

It’s hard to argue with a group of citizens enforcing their city’s own laws. Though let’s remember that the Chinese government’s stated purpose for their network is no different from the outcome in Vancouver: public safety.

As the surveillance power of smartphones with their easily uploaded still and video cameras and the powerful reach of social networking services like Twitter and Facebook increase, the question becomes what other uses will these informal networks be put to?

Because they represent ad hoc organizations of ordinary citizens they may be immune to being put at the service of something ugly. Then, again, history is filled with popular movements toward nefarious public goals. Certainly, we already have seen the effects of ordinary human mean-spiritedness in cyber-bullying and the cases of public shaming that stem from an ill-considered interest in cellphone photography.

Privacy advocates worry about the corporate access to data about our lives. But with the explosion of micro-surveillance—the ability for nearly anyone, anywhere to become the next potential Zapruder who might record, accidentally or with intent, a valuable piece of information—it’s hard not to wonder whether we’re all going to have to radically change our public behavior not because big brother is watching but because somewhere out there little brother is just waiting to tattle on us.

Sources:

Cisco Poised to Help China Keep an Eye on Its Citizens
by Loretta Chao and Don Clark
July 5, 2011; Wall Street Journal
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304778304576377141077267316.html?mod=WSJ_hp_LEFTTopStories

Twitter Playing Big Role in Reporting of Vancouver Riot
The Next Web Canada
http://thenextweb.com/ca/2011/06/16/twitter-playing-big-role-in-reporting-of-vancouver-riot/

Tools of Entry, No Need for a Key Chain
by Matt Richtel and Verne G. Kopytoff
July 4, 2011; New York Times
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/04/technology/04key.html?ref=business

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