Think George Orwell’s novel “1984” was farfetched? Think again. Everything from Doublespeak to the Thought Police is alive and well in our every more wired world. Big Brother is being employed by everybody from the government to big business and cybercriminals worldwide. Many intersections, some homes and every shopping mall in the world currently sport video cameras. More than 1 million camera-toting drones currently fly the friendly skies. What’s even more alarming is that our homes and businesses are rapidly becoming listening posts bristling with bugging devices galore that we have invited to share our space. In today’s blog, we will take a look at where this technology is headed, as well how it has undermined the concept of “The land of the free.”
The Surveillance Society
A report by the Telegraph indicates Britain currently has one CCTV camera for every 11 people. That amounts to more than five million cameras, including 750,000 in sensitive locations such as schools, hospitals and transportation hubs. While that may alarm some British citizens, Scotland Yard couldn’t be happier, since 95 percent of murder cases prosecuted in England used CCTV footage as evidence. While this news has been announced by the Parliament as a boon to crime fighting, there are those Brits that feel that the ends do not necessarily justify the means.
“Nick Pickles, director of the privacy campaign Big Brother Watch, said: ‘This report is another stark reminder of how out of control our surveillance culture has become. With potentially more than five million CCTV cameras across country, including more than 300,000 cameras in schools, we are being monitored in a way that few people would recognize as a part of a healthy democratic society. This report should be a wakeup call that in modern Britain there are people in positions of responsibility who seem to think ‘1984’ was an instruction manual.’”
In many ways, 1984 was a dark tale that foretold of British society’s every move being lorded over by Big Brother. It portrayed a place where every move, every word and every thought was monitored, collected and acted upon by the government. It was a place where dissent was not tolerated and those who harbored ill will toward any government policy were quietly eliminated from society as though they had never been born.
Just in case my U.S. readers opt to point out that what happens across the pond doesn’t necessarily translate to American shores, let me quote a 2011 report by NBC News that stated, “In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the market for video surveillance cameras boomed in the United States. Shocked by the worst attack on U.S. soil in 60 years, everyone from small-business owners to executives of giant multinationals rushed to get advanced security measures in place. A decade later, there haven’t been any more major terrorist attacks in the United States, but there are an estimated 30 million more security cameras.”
Keep in mind that the report is five years old. During those five years, we have seen the proliferation of millions more CCTV cameras. Of course, what most Americans don’t realize is that nearly everyone in the country now owns a webcam-equipped smartphone, laptop or tablet. We take these listening posts into our homes, our offices, our cars and even our bedrooms. If you don’t think these cameras can be turned against you, then you need to ask why billionaire Mark Zuckerberg covers his webcam with tape. That’s right, the MacBook belonging to Facebook’s CEO was observed, sporting a piece of tape over both the camera and microphone by staffers at Gizmodo.
“Social media had a ball last week poking fun at Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg when a photo he released to celebrate Instagram reaching 500 million users showed his laptop in the background with masking tape covering the webcam. Zuckerberg probably has more reason to be paranoid than most people that someone would target him. After all, some of his other social media profiles on Twitter and Pinterest were compromised. The billionaire has clearly taken a few steps to ensure he’s never compromised again. Stealing information and capturing a racy picture of the Facebook CEO would be a gold mine for extortionists, but this could happen to anyone.”
A Slate.com article also intimated that FBI Director James Comey reportedly does the same. So the question begging to be asked is why are a tech billionaire and the head of the most powerful police organization in the country quaking in their boots over the possibility that a hacker might take control of their webcams? You would too, if you knew what they know.
In the past couple of years, a number of celebrities have had intimate photos and/or videos posted online, or used to shake them down for sextortion. These have included former Miss Teen USA Cassidy Wolf, who was targeted by a former classmate named Jared Abrahams, who used a copy of the Blackshades malware to take control of her webcam. Jared then used his access to take a series of photos of Ms. Cassidy undressing in her bedroom to try to shake her down for cash. When Abrahams was eventually brought to justice, he was charged with trying to extort money from more than 100 women. Brought to justice might not be the right term, since he was only sentenced to 18 months after being convicted of these crimes.
These cybercrimes are not relegated to lone wolf attacks. In 2009, Canadian researchers discovered that Chinese cybercriminals had infiltrated thousands of webcams in more than 100 countries. Before you rush out to the hardware store to buy a roll of duct tape, let me remind you that webcams are only the tip of the online surveillance network.
Big Brother is Watching
The past 10 years has seen an alarming loss of privacy online as government agencies like the NSA and multinational corporations have gathered all kinds of information about US citizens on an industrial basis. Did you know that every keystroke you type into most browsers and search engines is recorded, catalogued, bought and sold? If having your privacy invaded every time you surf the web wasn’t bad enough, at least we could count on the sanctity of our own homes, right? Think again, because the introduction of the Internet of Things has meant your space isn’t necessarily yours alone.
Web-enabled appliances from Smart TVs to home security systems and Smart thermostats can be a two-way communication systems over which homeowners may not have complete control. Municipalities are also into this home invasion of privacy by insisting that residents allow utility companies to install Smart Electric Meters that do more than simply report power usage. They can also report how often you use various appliances in your home. (If this kind of surveillance seems useless, you should be aware that many utility companies sell this information.)
Hey Little Sister, What Have You Done?
While most people think of Big Brother as some kind of sinister father figure, the most insidious means of surveillance comes with a distinctly feminine side. Any of you who uses Apple’s Siri, or Amazon’s Alexa, and Microsoft’s Cortana are all too familiar with female voices that respond to your every question. Who’s to say that these devices can’t be turned into incessant eavesdroppers that listen into every word? Even more insidious is the fact that these little sisters are popping up in all kinds of appliances, from speakers to clock radios. Google also sports a “virtual assistant” that allows users to say “OK Google,” before aurally requesting information from the world’s most popular search engine. While OK Google doesn’t respond with a voice, the fact that a search engine is listening in on you should come as no surprise since Google has been tracking your every keyboard stroke for years. If I were you I would think twice before sharing your thoughts with any artificially intelligent system. They could come back to haunt you later.
The Thought Police
And if thatwasn’t bad enough that we can be tracked 24/7 in any GPS equipped device, including cars, cellphones and even many IoT devices, now there is an effort afoot by the government to read our minds. In an article on cnet.com entitled, “George Orwell Here We Come,”We obtained government documents that talked about reading air travelers’ minds and identifying suspicious thoughts. The NASA briefing materials referred to “non-invasive neuro-electric sensors” to be used in aviation security. In another bizarre press release, NASA claimed it has not approved any research in the area of “mind reading” and that “because of the sensitivity of such research,” the agency will seek independent review of future projects. Yikes.”
There is no doubt about it, there are government research projects involving “mind reading.” Popular Mechanics reported on a research project being run at the University of Washington that demonstrated it was possible to send a message from one human brain to another.
“Using an EEG cap, which records brain activity, they positioned two researchers in separate areas of the campus. In one room a colleague, Rajesh Rao, played a videogame using his mind. Each time Rao saw an enemy he wanted to shoot in the game he would think about pressing a button. Across campus Stocco sat with his back to the same video game while wearing a noise-cancelling headphones so he wouldn’t know when to respond. On his head was a transcranial magnetic stimulation coil (a device that can emit a focused electrical current), which was positioned directly over the part of the brain that controlled the movement of his finger. When Rao thought about moving his finger, the signal was transmitted across campus to Stocco who, without any knowledge of it, would twitch his finger and trigger the game to shoot an enemy. ‘The first time I didn’t even realize my hand had moved. I was just waiting for something to happen,” said Stocco’”
Brave New Wired World
Even more certain is that where governments go, private industry is sure to follow. In 2015, Fortune.com reported on the creation of “Spy Tech That Reads Your Mind.”
The report detailed a form of corporate software that can purportedly “spot insider threats before they happen by reading workers email.” The software developed by a psychologist and consultant to the intelligence community was designed to rifle through millions of emails and text messages a day, looking for words and phrases that indicate that a worker is under stress.
“Many companies already have the ability to run keyword searches of employees’ emails, looking for worrisome words and phrases like embezzle and I loathe this job. But the Stroz Friedberg software, called Scout, aspires to go a giant step further, detecting indirectly, through unconscious syntactic and grammatical clues, workers’ anger, financial or personal stress, and other tip-offs that an employee might be about to lose it. To measure employees’ disgruntlement, for instance, it uses an algorithm based on linguistic tells found to connote feelings of victimization, anger, and blame. For instance, unusually frequent use of the word me—several standard deviations above the norm—is associated with feelings of victimization, Shaw says. Why me? How can you do that to me? Anger might be signaled by unusually high use of negatives like no, not, never, and n’t, or of “negative evaluators” like You’re terrible and You’re awful at that. There might be heavy use of “adverbial intensifiers” like very, so, and such a or word rendered in all caps for emphasis: He’s a ZERO.“
Although private companies have always defended themselves against external attacks on their digital infrastructure, the latest trends are to guard themselves from within since more than a quarter of all attacks are perpetrated by insiders. The Fortune report goes onto say that,“Since 2011, government agencies that handle classified information have been required to have formal insider-threat programs in place. And in May that rule was extended to private contractors who handle such data—some 6,000 to 8,000 companies, according to Randall Trzeciak, who heads CERT’s Insider Threat Center. With increasing awareness of the problem, Trzeciak notes, the tools marketed to combat insider risk have proliferated. At the annual RSA conference on security two years ago, he says, only about 20 vendors displayed such wares. At this year’s, in February, he counted more than 125.”
And if thought policing wasn’t enough, there are other companies that are busy creating implantable chips and RFIDs to be used for everything from identification to opening locked doors. How long will it be before every man, woman and child are convinced to have these tiny devices implanted? Think the concept farfetched? Here is a quote from a blog from fastcompany.com entitled, “Under My Skin: The New Frontier of Digital Implants.”
“The technology is there—we can definitely talk to payment terminals with it—but we don’t have the agreements in place with banks [and companies like] MasterCard to make that happen,” he says. Paying for goods with an implantable chip might sound unusual for consumers and risky for banks, but Graafstra thinks the practice will one day become commonplace. He points to a survey released by Visa last year that found that 25% of Australians are “at least slightly interested” in paying for purchases through a chip implanted in their bodies. “It’s on the minds of people,” he says. “It just needs to be brought to fruition.”
Whether these and other technologies being developed by government and industry to get inside the heads of the public are going to result in the kind of totalitarian society envisioned by George Orwell is anybody’s guess. What isn’t in question is one disquieting fact: Big Brother is watching.
Carl Weiss has been working the web to win since 1995 and has helped hundreds of companies increase their online results. He is president of W Squared Media and co-host of the weekly radio show Working the Web to Win which airs Tuesdays at 4pm Eastern on BlogTalkRadio.com. Click here to get his latest book “Working The Web to Win: When it comes to online marketing, you can’t win, if you don’t know how to play the game!”.
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