Big Brother is watching you…. and so are his corporate partners

big-brother-is-watching-you_thumbnaPrivacy advocates are spoilt for choice these days about what to complain about – privacy invasions by business, or privacy invasions by the authorities? Over the last year or so, I’ve written regularly about both – whether it be my seemingly endless posts in recent weeks about Facebook, or the many times I wrote last year about the wonderful Snoopers’ Charter – our Communications Data Bill (which is due to re-emerge after its humiliation fairly shortly).

It’s a hard one to answer – and I tend to oscillate between the two in terms of which I think is more worrying, more of a threat. And then a new story comes along to remind me that it isn’t either on its own that we should be really worried about – it’s when the two work together. Another such story has just come to light, this time in The Guardian

“Raytheon’s Riot program mines social network data like a ‘Google for spies’, drawing ire from civil rights groups”

The essence of the story is simple. Raytheon is reported to have developed software “capable of tracking people’s movements and predicting future behaviour by mining data from social networking websites”. Whether the details of the story are correct, and whether Raytheon’s software is particularly good at doing what it is supposed to do isn’t really the main point: the emergence of software like this was always pretty close to inevitable. And it will get more effective – profiling will get sharper, targeting more precise, predictions more accurate.

Inevitable and automatic

What’s more, this isn’t just some ‘friendly’ policemen or intelligence operatives looking over our Facebook posts or trawling through our tweets – this is software, software that will operate automatically and invisibly, and can look at everything. What’s more, it’s commercially produced software. Raytheon says that ‘it has not sold the software – named Riot, or Rapid Information Overlay Technology – to any clients’ but it will. It’s commercially motivated – and investigations by groups such as Privacy International have shown that surveillance technology is sold to authoritarian regimes and others around the world in an alarming way.

If you build it, they will come

The real implication is that when software like this is developed, the uses will follow. Perhaps it will be used at first for genuinely helpful purposes – tracking real terrorists, finding paedophiles etc (and you can bet that the fights against terrorism and child abuse will be amongst the first reasons wheeled out for allowing this kind of thing) – but those uses will multiply. Fighting terrorist will become fighting crime, which will become fighting disorder, which will become fighting potential disorder, which will become locating those who might have ‘unhelpful’ views. Planning a protest against the latest iniquitous taxation or benefits change? Trying to stop your local hospital being shut or your local school being privatised? Supporting the ‘wrong’ football team?

Just a quick change in the search parameters and this kind of software, labelled by the Guardian a ‘google for spies’, will track you down and predict your next moves. Big Brother would absolutely love it.

A perfect storm for surveillance

This is why, in the end, we should worry about both corporate and government surveillance. The more that private businesses gather data, the better they get at profiling, even for the most innocuous of purposes, or for that all too common one, making money, the more that this kind of data, these kinds of techniques, can be used by others.

We should worry about all of this – and fight it on all fronts. We should encourage people to be less blasé about what they post on Facebook. I may be a bit extreme in regularly recommending that people leave Facebook (see my 10 reasons to leave Facebook post) because I know many people rely on it at the moment, but we should seriously advise people to rely on it less, to use it more carefully – and to avoid things like geo-location etc (see my what to do if you can’t leave Facebook post). We should oppose any and all government universal internet surveillance programmes – like the Snoopers’ Charter – and we should support campaigns like that of Privacy International against the international trade in surveillance technology.

Facebook and others create a platform. We put in all our data. Technology firms like Raytheon write the software. It all comes together like a perfect storm for surveillance.

20 thoughts on “Big Brother is watching you…. and so are his corporate partners

  1. Interestingly, the Crick Institute, being built in St Pancras, has an interesting way of dealing with critics (ie potential “terrorists”). It reports them to the police. Recently, two prominent community members, complained to the Crick about heavy construction traffic. One was the Chair of the Tenants and Residents Association of a block opposite the new build, the other, was the owner of this community’s largest retailer. The Crick reported both to the police and the police visited the miscreants. One is now complaining to the appropriate Ombudsman. The Crick Institute, I suspect, would be an early purchaser of this software. Perhaps I should now await a visit from the police too.

  2. Very interesting Paul, I’m going to see your article about leaving facebook now -although I have the bare minimum on Facebook, I intend to use it as a promotional tool. I will think on that. Further more, as raised in your article – geolocation – instinctively I’ve always resfused to activate any geolocation function on any device I’ve used, I’m pleased I took that decision now. It always struck me as creepy and nosey.

    1. Thanks – and there are of course many positives about Facebook, including as a promotional tool. The issue for me is about personal information and profiling – if you want yourself to be profiled, for business purposes for example, why not? So long as you can see the pitfalls and downsides….

  3. This ties in nicely with last year’s report ( by Sir Christopher Rose, Surveillance Commissioner in which he says “My Commissioners have expressed concern that some research using the Internet may meet the criteria of directed surveillance. This is particularly true if a profile is built by processing data about a specific individual or group of individuals without their knowledge.” Such profiling requires an authority to be granted, and this is really only restricted to criminal activity. Big Brother has indeed visited us it would appear.

  4. I agree with everything you have written but I think campaigns like those of Privacy International are too focused on the stereotypical rogue states. I would like to see campaigns against the sale of these technologies in the UK, USA etc. which have some of the most appalling surveillance records of the 20th and 21st century. Privacy International’s own data rank the US and UK in the top 10 surveillance states, yet their campaigns are focused elsewhere.

    1. I do agree – the surveillance by the ‘good guys’ is likely to be both more extensive and more dangerous than by the ‘rogues’. We should be focussing on reducing the demand for this stuff too, which is one of the reasons I find the Snoopers’ Charter programme so disastrous: it’s both normalising surveillance and providing a £1.8 billion (and then some!) fund to develop that surveillance…

      Having said that, controlling exports is also very important – just not the most important part of the equation.

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  8. a friend of the guy thats dissappeaered sorry paulbernal64 u ask peeps to say shit then suddenly they dissappear i saw black cars leaving my friends house i dont see my friend u fucking cocksucking gov officail bastard i cures u and all ur family to die a slow painful death from a romany gypsy

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