TCS Daily

Answering Orwell

By Sonia Arrison - June 25, 2003 12:00 AM

It was 100 years ago this week that George Orwell was born, making it a good time to reconsider his dystopian vision, especially his assertion that technology would become a tool for totalitarian rulers to monitor and control citizens.

In his famous novel 1984, Orwell imagined a world where the "telescreen," controlled by the "Ministry of Love," fed people propaganda and spied on them. The telescreen was able to transmit images and sounds, something very much like a computer equipped with a camera, except that there was no keyboard -- only the government could control the technology. In a post 9/11 world where government interest in new technologies has exploded, the possibility of Orwell's scenario worries observers ranging from the American Conservative Union to the ACLU.

One technology that elicits this fear is remote face scanning that can identify people. This is particularly worrisome if combined with the Pentagon's proposed "Terrorism Information Awareness" (TIA) system, formerly called "Total Information Awareness." The idea behind TIA is to create a government-controlled database that would track all individual data from cradle to grave in an effort to predict who among us is a terrorist.

It's disturbing to many that government wants to expand its reach by creating massive systems to track citizens. But one should consider who can access surveillance tech and whether society cares about, and acts on, government abuses of power.

When only government possesses surveillance technology, there's reason for worry. But if citizens also play in the spy game, things start to change. Government transparency and accountability through pervasive, decentralized use of technology isn't a new idea. Peter Huber argued for just that in "Orwell's Revenge: The 1984 Palimpsest." He even contended that Orwell was wrong and that technology, far from being oppressive, is actually liberating.

Whether technology will be effective in limiting improper government power is still an open question, but it's beginning to be answered by companies like face recognition firm A4Vison and camera/interface-maker Logitech.

A recent visit to A4Vision in Silicon Valley was fascinating not only for the geek factor -- their 3D recognition software can't be fooled by even some of the best Hollywood masks -- but also because of the practical ramifications of its legitimate business interests. Earlier this year, A4Vision partnered with Logitech, inserting the same tech that governments might use into a $99 camera for consumers to buy.

The point of using the face recognition software in a consumer camera is manifold, but right now it allows the camera to follow someone around as they speak to it. Imagine participating in a video conference call and wanting to walk while you speak. Before, one would have had to adjust the camera manually, but with face recognition the camera can automatically follow. That's only the beginning of how this will be integrated with consumer products.

Spencer Johnson, director of product marketing for Logitech's Video Division, says that in the next year consumers will likely have the ability to control access to their computers using a camera and avatar, an image of themselves or some other character.

Imagine your computer instantly recognizing you by scanning your face -- and giving you images of anyone who tries to access your computer without permission. And then there's also the possibility of "nanny cams" that can be designed to alert you if unauthorized people enter your home and if authorized people, such as the gardener, stray out of acceptable areas.

Moore's law is helping to ensure cheap access to surveillance technology, meaning that soon it will be financially possible for consumer watchdogs to set up their own sophisticated cameras near government-installed ones to make sure that government isn't the only body with access to key public data. And, it should also be possible to monitor who goes in and out of government buildings, just as government cameras watch who visits national monuments.

Since the cost of surveillance technologies has shrunk, the main barrier to increased government transparency will be any laws that disallow third-party watchdog surveillance. But how vigilant will society be in forcing government to submit? And will abuses be properly punished?

Liberty is only maintained if it resides in the spirit of the people. This is the key to predicting whether Orwell's nightmare will come true. Technology is neither good nor evil; it simply reflects its masters.

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