Watching All the People, All the Time

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One of the most fearsome predictions made by George Orwell in his novel, 1984, was of the development of a technology capable of monitoring people 24/7, during every waking (and even sleeping) moment of their lives. He called it the Telescreen – and through it, Big Brother Brother (or rather, Big Brother’s minions) kept watch over you.

Well, the Telescreen is old hat – both technology-wise and tyranny-wise. It was only a two-way TV, after all. As Winston Smith himself explained, while in theory you were watched all the time, in fact, it was not possible to watch everyone at all times – simply because there were not enough Thought Policemen to keep track of every single person at every single moment. Thus, you had at least a chance to go unobserved.

But the new Telescreen developed by “security firm” BRS Labs is entirely automated. A computer brain watches 24/7.

Its all-seeing (and all-recording) eye never blinks.

It also thinks.

Using what the company calls AIsight (i.e., artificial intelligence) “behavior recognition” algorithms, the BRS Telescreen watches for “anomalous” behavior – anything that deviates from whatever “norm” is programmed into its chilly, transistorized mind. We’re told it will detect – cue tired catchphrase – terrorists – but of course we’ll all be subject to the gimlet eye. Walk too slowly … linger too long … fail to move with the crowd … prima facie “suspicious activity,” according to BRS. Such “suspicious activity” then triggers an alert – and the human warders are called in to investigate.

The first one goes operational soon in San Franciso MUNI public transport system – where it will monitor all the people all the time. The city has signed a lucrative contract with BRS to install the Telescreens (well, they insist on calling them cameras) in 12 subway stations. Each station will be fitted with 22 Telescreens (er, cameras). There they will “build memories of observed behavior patterns that mature with time.” The system “has the capability to learn from (what it) observes.”

Delightful, isn’t it?

Other BRS “customers” include the City of Houston, the Louisiana Port Commission, the City of Birmingham, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and – of course – the World Trade Center complex, the very place where whatever remained of “our freedoms” went up in smoke along with 3,000 human beings. No doubt the system – the grid – will expand. We can’t be too safe, after all. Within a few years, it will probably be impossible to go outside without falling under the watchful eye of AI. And why stop there? Surely, terrorists will hatch their plots inside as well. This will be the pretext used to get the Telescreens (cough, cameras) into our homes. Hell, they’re already there. Most recent model computers have built-in cameras (and microphones) that can be turned on and off remotely, by someone not you. Many home computers are tied into the TV, too. And most new cars also have cameras… and can connect to the outside world via GPS… .

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Eric Peters [send him mail] is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities and Road Hogs (2011). Visit his website.

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