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‘Big Brother’ watching: creating a safer world; or goodbye privacy
Dick Pelletier   Jan 29, 2013   Ethical Technology  

In gambling casinos, cameras spot a card counter, thief, or blacklisted player, and a database instantly confirms identification. The suspect is quickly escorted from the facility, or arrested. Intelligent cameras that can observe people and react to events are advancing exponentially. At a White House briefing, counterterrorism adviser John Brennan said, thanks to the U.S. military's latest facial recognition technology, he was "99 percent" certain that the commando team had killed bin Laden.

Every face has landmarks called nodal points; distance between eyes, nose size, jaw line, cheekbone shape, eye sockets, skin folds, wrinkles and unique iris characteristics. Together these points create a one-of-a-kind "face print" that identifies people with nearly 100% accuracy.

High-res cameras with voice recording, found on buses and other transportation systems; as well as cell phones, laptops, and tablets; are becoming commonplace, says writer Steve Lohr in, "Computers That See you and Keep Watch over you." New algorithms are creating novel applications, Lohr says.

'Smart' cams in hospitals remind doctors and nurses to wash their hands; and mounted behind a mirror, these devices can read a patient's face and detect heart rate, stress, and blood pressure. Security cams installed in stores to prevent thefts create an enhanced sense of safety to our shopping experience.

MIT Professor Rosalind W. Picard and her partner Rana el-Kaliouby recently started a company called Affectiva that provides facial-recognition software to marketers. Designed to improve advertising campaigns, the system enables cameras to identify emotional responses from prospective customers.

Movie trailers and product videos are displayed in kiosks throughout shopping malls, while hidden cameras track consumer facial movements to capture like and dislike reactions. At the 2013 CES show, vendors highlight home security systems and the role of future cell phones.

And the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) recently began research in the Mind's Eye, a 5-year effort to develop machines that can recognize, analyze and communicate what they see. Mounted on robots or drones, these smart machines could replace humans in many warfare activities.

Now, enter the most hyped science of all time – nanotechnology. In a recent Foresight Nanotech Policy Brief, authors Jacob Heller and Christine Peterson discuss how "'Big Brother' may end up being very, very small." Nanosensors, already under development can detect minute amounts of chemicals in the air, which will make it difficult, if not impossible to sneak a bomb into airports and heavily populated areas.

In addition, human-implanted nanochips will soon be available that can track an individual's location and possibly, what that person consumed (drugs, junk food; etc.).

Granted, there are many positive applications for these 'Big Brother' technologies. Locating adventuring lost toddlers and wandering seniors with mental disorders is invaluable. And insurance companies could use this information to calculate risks more accurately, lowering insurance rates for most people.

But nanosensors could also enable corporations to monitor their employees around the clock, recording where they visit, whom they talk with, and what they consume – an oppressive loss of privacy. Also, see 11 Body Parts Defense Researchers Will Use to Track You.

'Big Brother' has already infiltrated social media. Imagine reading an article about government policies in Facebook and then wanting to post an angry comment. Would you pause if you knew the government would collect and store your comment and username? This prevents people from speaking their minds.

However, many experts believe the advantages of surveillance far outweigh the dangers. In addition to the benefits listed above, authorities could identify terrorists and criminals before they commit crimes.

And some see an even brighter view of how 'Big Brother' might affect our future. As mind-enhancement technologies progress (by 2050?), a kinder, gentler humanity could morph into a peaceful 'Global Village', focused more on improving health and extending lifespans, than quarreling over cultural differences.

Dick Pelletier was a weekly columnist who wrote about future science and technologies for numerous publications. He passed away on July 22, 2014.


Follow this up with the recent IEET blog posts “Forget 1984 and Conspiracy Stories, This is the Real Thing” by Federico Pistono and “What’s Wrong With Borgdom?” by Rick Searle and a clear theme emerges: we are but slaves to the technomatrix of our own making. If this is really true what can we do? Should we throw in the towel and go along with the program or stand up, unplug ourselves and say ‘no way’? Is our decision that radical or is there a middle way?

The title implies a dichotomy that isn’t necessarily there.


I admit I am not the world’s greatest writer. How do you think it should be titled? I appreciate the critique.

Maybe something like “Orwellian overlord or harbinger of reciprocal accountability?”


I can see what “Orewellian overload” would implicate, but would this do justice to the last two paragraphs in the article where I point out that “Big Brother’ might affect us in positive ways—creating a “kinder, gentler humanity that could morph into a peaceful ‘Global Village’”?

That would be what the latter part of my suggestion referred to. Overlord, by the way.


I see what you mean. However, many of my readers—mostly ‘boomers and seniors—do not own the luzury of a college education, so I try to talk in terms that are easier to understand with this group.

Thanks for the suggestion, Dick.

Although we are statistically less violent than we were in the past (even gun murder rates have gone down believe it or not) I don’t think we are going to be kinder and gentler anytime soon and at this point its hard to imagine a “global village” forming among countries with totally polar views, values, and agendas.  That what makes the whole new world order talk and bunch of b.s.

“That what makes the whole new world order talk and bunch of b.s.”

B.S?: three years from now, the GOP will prepare their New Hampshire primary to start choosing yet another Bush-type.. hard to believe but true nonetheless. It was before your time, Chris, however HW Bush, the first Bush, spoke of a new world order (lower case) and in response Pat Robertson wrote a senile paranoid ‘Christian’ book titled the New World Order (high case).
The so-called conservative Right is clueless; by helping to dissolve the Warsaw Pact, Reagan cut the ground from under their unity and they have been casting around for consensus. Republicans don’t have Reagan to guide them or the threat of Communism to unify them. They are as lost sheep, Chris.
That’s what compassionate conservatism is about: spending govt. funds for conservative ends; and three years from now they will nominate another Bush-type. Shows you how powerful nostalgia is: in their sentimentality for the past, the Republican Right wants to elect politicians who spend government funds to keep the illusion of Reagan (who announced “government is the Enemy”) going.
BS? well, the GOP ought to know.

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