They Are Watching You—and Everything Else on the Planet

Cover article by Robert Draper for Special Issue of the National Geographic: “Technology and our increasing demand for security have put us all under surveillance. Is privacy becoming just a memory?…

In 1949, amid the specter of European authoritarianism, the British novelist George Orwell published his dystopian masterpiece 1984, with its grim admonition: “Big Brother is watching you.” As unsettling as this notion may have been, “watching” was a quaintly circumscribed undertaking back then. That very year, 1949, an American company released the first commercially available CCTV system. Two years later, in 1951, Kodak introduced its Brownie portable movie camera to an awestruck public.

Today more than 2.5 trillion images are shared or stored on the Internet annually—to say nothing of the billions more photographs and videos people keep to themselves. By 2020, one telecommunications company estimates, 6.1 billion people will have phones with picture-taking capabilities. Meanwhile, in a single year an estimated 106 million new surveillance cameras are sold. More than three million ATMs around the planet stare back at their customers. Tens of thousands of cameras known as automatic number plate recognition devices, or ANPRs, hover over roadways—to catch speeding motorists or parking violators but also, in the case of the United Kingdom, to track the comings and goings of suspected criminals. The untallied but growing number of people wearing body cameras now includes not just police but also hospital workers and others who aren’t law enforcement officers. Proliferating as well are personal monitoring devices—dash cams, cyclist helmet cameras to record collisions, doorbells equipped with lenses to catch package thieves—that are fast becoming a part of many a city dweller’s everyday arsenal. Even less quantifiable, but far more vexing, are the billions of images of unsuspecting citizens captured by facial-recognition technology and stored in law enforcement and private-sector databases over which our control is practically nonexistent.

Those are merely the “watching” devices that we’re capable of seeing. Presently the skies are cluttered with drones—2.5 million of which were purchased in 2016 by American hobbyists and businesses. That figure doesn’t include the fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles used by the U.S. government not only to bomb terrorists in Yemen but also to help stop illegal immigrants entering from Mexico, monitor hurricane flooding in Texas, and catch cattle thieves in North Dakota. Nor does it include the many thousands of airborne spying devices employed by other countries—among them Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea.

We’re being watched from the heavens as well. More than 1,700 satellites monitor our planet. From a distance of about 300 miles, some of them can discern a herd of buffalo or the stages of a forest fire. From outer space, a camera clicks and a detailed image of the block where we work can be acquired by a total stranger….

This is—to lift the title from another British futurist, Aldous Huxley—our brave new world. That we can see it coming is cold comfort since, as Carnegie Mellon University professor of information technology Alessandro Acquisti says, “in the cat-and-mouse game of privacy protection, the data subject is always the weaker side of the game.” Simply submitting to the game is a dispiriting proposition. But to actively seek to protect one’s privacy can be even more demoralizing. University of Texas American studies professor Randolph Lewis writes in his new book, Under Surveillance: Being Watched in Modern America, “Surveillance is often exhausting to those who really feel its undertow: it overwhelms with its constant badgering, its omnipresent mysteries, its endless tabulations of movements, purchases, potentialities.”

The desire for privacy, Acquisti says, “is a universal trait among humans, across cultures and across time. You find evidence of it in ancient Rome, ancient Greece, in the Bible, in the Quran. What’s worrisome is that if all of us at an individual level suffer from the loss of privacy, society as a whole may realize its value only after we’ve lost it for good.”…(More)”.