Opinion: from dashcams to running apps, surveillance has been inadvertently privatised by the collective actions of individuals

George Orwell's vision of 1984 and Big Brother watching us is a longstanding motif about the surveillance of society, and remains a warning. However, Orwell could never have foreseen how surveillance actually works in the digital age - or at the very least he would have come up with a different idea of Big Brother.

Big Brother today is a cyclist with a helmet camera wanting to gather evidence of driving misdemeanors. Big Brother is a motorist wanting to cut the cost of their insurance premiums by installing a dashcam. Big Brother is the consumer who gives their data away to download their running app in quick-time. Orwell assumed government would be the Big Brother, but surveillance is being in fact inadvertently privatised by the collective actions of individuals.

Surveillance in today’s world of communication and social media is about connectivity rather than a centralised all-seeing system. In this world, Big Brother is more Google than government; more private than public. By means of big tech and global platforms, all of us are connected at a granular level, able to record our every movement, from the use of wearable technology through to facial recognition systems.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, how surveillance technology is being introduced into social welfare systems worldwide

The currency of this connectivity is data. According to the Data Age 2025 white paper published by IT advisory firm IDC, the world’s data will grow from 33 to 175 zettabytes by 2025. You’re probably used to gigabytes, maybe terabytes, and a few of you may be familiar with petabytes, so what are zettabytes? To illustrate, storing 175 zettabytes on DVDs would require a stack of DVDs that would be enough to circle the Earth 222 times. Downloading 175 zettabytes, at the average current internet connection speed, would take you 1.8 billion years. If everyone on the planet pitched in, it would take a mere 81 days.

In this exponentially growing mass of data, each one of us is the needle in the haystack. We can be zoomed into, expanded from where we are into a larger context, forwarded to another data set. We are data, and our data is an asset that others want.  Our data is collected and is ready to sell. Companies are collecting, or mining, our personal data online and using it to target us with marketing and for other purposes. These companies know a surprising amount about us, but nowhere near as much as they are likely to in the future.

At present, we give our data away freely, and with it goes our privacy. We consent to giving this data away without thinking about it, and we do this because we are in a hurry to get our data fix. However, we also give our data away without being given a choice, through use of means such as facial recognition. Stores are already developing facial recognition to track us. Soon, we will be able to shop both cash-less and card-less, as our face is recognised and our bank account debited. This offers convenience and safety, in the sense of having no purse to snatch or card to be cloned.

From RTÉ Radio 1's The Business, Adrian Weckler from the Irish Independent on Apple's use of facial recognition technology

Two questions arise. First, do we really want this? The second is the one that really matters: are we walking into a whole new economic world of data with our eyes shut? This new data economy is one increasingly defined by "use cases." A "Use Case" is one of those terms that starts in one discipline and finds its own currency in a broader setting - in this case, moving from technology to business.

Use cases are ways in which we discover a technology and then find a use for them, which includes a means of monetising them. If they have no use value, they therefore cannot be monetised and are essentially redundant. The vast majority of data manipulators want to understand us so they can sell us something, or not. Our desire for ease and simplicity is a trade-off against having control of our data privacy. There are, ironically, technology companies who are now actively selling us data privacy.

It is a short step from losing our data privacy to losing our freedoms, as our choice gets restricted at a granular level. We become so targeted - as a needle in the haystack - that we only get the news that is tailored to us, our choices predetermined by analysis of data, and exposure to views in a data-constructed echo chamber. Our loss of freedoms are coming from an algorithm rather than "big government". The new data economy of Big Brother is coming. We ought to take heed of the words of the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas and not go gentle into that good night.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ