Tech talk: Mathew Dickerson

The term ‘Big Brother’ has entered our lexicon and is widely used throughout society today. As I am sure you are aware, the term comes from the title of George Orwell’s 1949 fictional novel by the same name where the residents of the fictional Oceania are under constant surveillance via telescreens.

Despite what we see in the movies – in particular when a geek sitting at a computer will hit the magical ‘enhance image’ button – technology is not yet at that level.

Despite what we see in the movies – in particular when a geek sitting at a computer will hit the magical ‘enhance image’ button – technology is not yet at that level.

While the term is loosely thrown around, I wonder how close our current society is to that imagined by Orwell. Consider some of the current technology in place. Businesses and homes across the country have an incredible number of hours of high quality CCTV footage of normal everyday activities. Add in the Police and government video systems and it is hard to imagine many places where you aren’t being recorded. Facial recognition software is now at the level that one face can be compared to a database of faces at the rate of 36 million faces per second and an image only needs to comprise of 40 pixels by 40 pixels for reliable detection.

Movements of an individual can be tracked even in images of large crowds. Modern technology from law enforcement agencies allows number plates to be tracked and instant checks performed on registrations.

The technology is so good that a mobile camera can scan four traffic lanes provided the traffic is moving at no more than 240km/h – and presumably if a vehicle is travelling faster than 240km/h then it is pretty easy to spot there is an issue.

Our credit and debit cards can be used to paint a trail of our movements and see where we are shopping. Phone metadata can be used to track movements of individuals while in the US the mobile carriers responded to 1.3 million law enforcement requests last year for subscriber information including text messages and phone location data.

Despite what we see in the movies – in particular when a geek sitting at a computer will hit the magical ‘enhance image’ button – the resolution capabilities and data requirements of high quality satellite imagery means that governments are not yet at the level of having constant high-quality images of every piece of the planet but there are companies who are delivering something similar in specific areas. Some cities in the US have contracted organisations to fly planes above major crime areas or over major events. These are high enough that it isn’t obvious they are there but the resolution, at 192 megapixels, can track movements of individuals.

In an idea that seems like it comes straight from Orwell’s thoughts, street lights are now being rolled out in some US cities – backed by the Department of Energy – that not only act as surveillance cameras but are also capable of being used as public address systems and can also record conversations.

Should we be worried about all of this? The logic is that if I am a law-abiding honest citizen then I shouldn’t have anything to worry about. I am sure you remember the tragedy of Jill Meagher’s murder in 2012. The first suspect in the murder was her husband. The Police later apologised for their treatment of Tom Meagher as he was trying to deal with the disappearance of his wife while being treated like a criminal. Tom was quickly eliminated by tracking his mobile phone data and comparing that to Jill’s. The killer was eventually caught by the same method with the additional information provided by number plate recognition from a toll on Moreland Road in Melbourne. When confronted with the information, the killer had no way to explain the information and eventually confessed.

This was clearly a win for the collection of data but what many people worry about is all of this information ending up in the wrong hands. Someone with criminal intent may well be able to track information of a potential victim to learn their movements and plan their attack. If George Orwell was brought back to life right now and looked at the society we live in I am sure he would say the only thing he got wrong in his novel was the name. Maybe instead of Nineteen Eighty-Four it should have been called Two Thousand and Sixteen!