Big Brother vs. Big Uncle; the opposing sides of the loss of privacy to security systems

The changing world creates pressures to employ technology advances for our protection. As these advances compromise our privacy, they also drive social change in our attitudes to privacy. Business and government are working to set standards and policies to ensure these security advances deliver us benevolent security: Big Uncle, not Big Brother.

Either is possible with the technology: benevolent security is dependent on the legal, social and business policies that govern the technology.

In previous posts about Big Uncle, we discussed how immense amounts of data are assembled about us, gradually eroding privacy. The application of advanced technologies gives us hope of finding the evil terrorist needle in that haystack. Modern concepts of privacy are just that: modern. In most places and times, people live with far less privacy than the Western world has become accustomed to.

Now things are returning to normal: get over it. We can be quite apathetic about much of this change, but the community will speak up whenever it goes too far – defining the limits through outcry.

More security systems that intrude into our privacy are inevitable given the rise of terrorism. Society will get used to conceding privacy over time. But the initial reaction of many to these more integrated security systems will be that they represent “Big Brother”. Originally Big Brother was the supreme ruler in George Orwell’s novel 1984: “At the apex of the pyramid comes Big Brother. Big Brother is infallible and all-powerful… Nobody has ever seen Big Brother... BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU… There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time… You had to live … in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and … every movement scrutinised”

In contemporary usage Big Brother is a mythical entity who is all knowing, all powerful, secretive and despotic. The image is often invoked in privacy discussions, always pejoratively.
If we accept that increased security is essential in response to modern threats, we must all ensure that the resulting erosion of privacy does not result in an erosion of freedom and democracy. It especially falls on IT workers to ensure technology is put to work benevolently.

The result of increased security does not have to be Big Brother. It can be “Big Uncle”: a powerful force working in the interests of the community to preserve and protect. Smokey the Bear with wiretaps.

All knowing Appropriately knowing
All powerful Answerable
Secretive Transparent
Despotic Benevolent

We'll talk more about Big Uncle in future posts.


The benevolent dictator paradox

Power corrupts and absolute power.... You know the drill

You are getting into heady territory when you start discussing Plato's The Republic

The core problem is the type of policies we are talking about grants powers which cannot be easily governed. You therefore have the benevolent dictator paradox which is a great concept, but one that people do not generally believe to be true of government (unless perhaps you are from Sweden or similarly enlightened society).

"A" truth is, the legacy barriers of security afforded us by a lack of connected'ness have all but disappeared. Because the capability exists, the "blackmarket" usage has already started. Do you believe if you legalized drugs, that the problem would be more manageable. Is smoking or drinking less of a social problem than drugs, or is it just media who forms this opinion in our minds. If you believe in legalization, then adopting relaxed privacy would have the same impact.

I will say that I have little passion about privacy. Being from the wide open spaces of Oz, I sometimes think all I need is an excuse to head to the bush and disconnect from the world. Privacy meltdown might be just the ticket.

Brad Vaughan

people need to stand up and object

I'm in Amsterdam right now and it looks a nicely functional society to me, despite the fact that the guy at the next table is smoking a spliff so perhaps society's aversion to leglisation might be more of a probelm of closed minds. likewise surveillance. people get the government they deserve. people need to stand up and object. if surveillance is being used inapprorpiately then lots of technical people know. it is up to us to whistle blow, and the USA has quite a good track record of this. a free press is also essential.

losing privacy won't create big brother any more than any technology will. big brother arises when the society is too abject,apathetic or corrupt to stop it, regardless of the tools available.

A spliff by any other name...

Would that be Kiwi for "joint" ;-P

ya mun

ya mun

I didn't realise it isn't an international term

A personal truth

One if the things I consider a truth ("and there are very few I consider in this category") is that everybody is a mushroom living in the growing ecosystem of society. The inability for information and knowledge to be transmitted in an unbiased fashion means that we are immersed in a reality which is completely artificial. Very rarely do we get to see truth communicated, and then it is only things that are so sensational, that no "spin" is required (eg. Asian Tsunami).

If you want to personalize this concept of personal reality, then consider the change in perspective you get when you start doing your bosses job, or move from customer land to vendor land. You have a completely new reality, a different view on the same set of inputs. To believe that masses can truely regulate governments is a myth. You can have no concept of what occurs in this other reality. Our involvement just givse them a different set of conditions to work under. This is hghlighted in a comical was in "Yes Prime Minister" ( ) on the BBC. For go or bad, that is society and the best one we have..

Big brother is here, its just a matter of penetration of implementation. A organization or group monitoring a target community and influencing decisions to the detriment of freewill exists today in many places (eg. prisons being one clean example, school another, the media being a slightly more complicated one)..

Go too much further down this track and you might have to rename the both to "Conspiracy Theory" :)

Brad Vaughan

be grateful we have Amnesty and Greenpeace and Mike Moore

Big Brother isn't here. There are a few elements of it carried on by the CIA and others which i will blog about real soon, but right now it is heavily constrianed: most world governments can't get away with BB, not as Orwell defined him. The troops on the frontline object. Look at the leaks over US torture in Iraq etc... People still have enough courage and freedom to blow the whistle. Much as I wouldn't want to socialise with them, the world should be grateful we have Amnesty and Greenpeace and ACLU and Mike Moore and ...

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