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24 Jan '15

Big Brother’s Little Brother – how Dropcam revolutionizes old notions of security & surveillance

Posted by Ben Cook

Do you remember when you were forced to read George Orwell’s 1984 at school? No? Then you must have read Animal Farm instead.

If you missed his dystopian vision of the future you won’t have missed all the pop culture references that it inspired. Starting with the TV show Big Brother, where a collection of socially mal-adjusted individuals must co-exist in what must be an evolution of a frat-house for adults (evolution in that unlike a frat-house the participants can’t leave whenever they want). To neologisms such as “Doublespeak”, “Thought Police”, and yes “Big Brother” that have now entered common usage.

Surveillance by cameras in 1984, a practically sci-fi concept when the book was written in 1948, were one of the primary ways of keeping the populace in line. Nowadays such a reality is not so farfetched. It is hard to avoid some TV pundit yelling “surveillance state” every time someone’s privacy is infringed in the news. Moreover, the NSA scandal has taught us that those conspiracy-laden theories of the government, WATCHING YOUR EVERY MOVE, aren’t as crazy as they must have sounded ten, twenty years ago!

 'George Orwell 1984 Cover1949 British first edition cover of '1984

Technology has evolved at such a pace that we are now facing something of a revolution: a revolution that puts power back in the hands of the individual. I’m talking, of course, about IP cameras. Previously if you installed a dozen or so CCTV cameras around your house your neighbours would assume you were living out a Scarface fantasy, holed up with a mountain of cocaine and an M-16A1 waiting for the neighbour’s kid to jump the fence in search of that lost football. The reality has become far more prosaic.
With the plummeting costs of cameras, camera phones, webcams, etc. it was only a matter of time until the surveillance industry jumped on the band wagon. Everybody wants to feel secure and protect what’s most important to them. To do so with unobtrusive cameras is simply taking advantage of the technology that is now more affordable than ever. One company that is leading the pack, Dropcam, are flooding the market with their effective, simple to use cameras that can live-stream footage to your laptop or phone at any time.

So what would Orwell think of this surveillance? On the surface you would think he’d be vehemently opposed. The Telescreens, monitoring devices used by the Thought Police, are a source of oppression in 1984. My question to you: is it cameras themselves that Orwell opposes or the corrupt governments that wield them?

If I decide to monitor a nanny in the sanctity of my own home to ensure the safety of my children is that any different from a bank installing cameras to ensure that no one tries to rob them? No one would think to call the bank oppressive… not when there are so many other, better reasons to hate banks. In a perfect world security cameras would not be necessary. In this perfect world, one assumes, banks would trust you to only take out as much money as you put in.

If Orwell has taught us anything it is not to trust in this perfect world, nor to follow blindly those institutions which promise you it at the cost of your own civil liberties. When you install your Dropcams, hide your Dropcam and hook them up to your phone, you are decentralizing surveillance power – away from the government to the individual. Something that Orwell may have been excited about.

It might seem like a small gesture, but the world is made up of lots of small gestures that only together make a big one. Let’s try to bring back the days when if you said “Big Brother” people took it as an affectionate name for, you know, your older brother. Not a paranoid vision of the future…

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