"If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself" - George Orwell in '1984'.
Technology frees us. It erodes the barriers that once blocked communication, enabling us to reach the other side of the world in an instant. It allows us to navigate a new city effortlessly, our very location pinpointed precisely on a digital map. It allows us to broadcast in real time. Photograph every moment. Upload our lives to the Cloud.
Technology shackles us. Our WhatsApp messages, Skype conversations, Facebook profiles and webcams are hackable. Our very location pinpointed precisely even when we don't want it to be. Technology allows our every moment to become a digital fingerprint, uploaded in the Cloud, where it is exploitable in the wrong hands.
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However you view technology, its growing impact on society is unquestionable. But the increasing convenience electronic gadgets offer our lives is matched by the rise of justified concern over breach of privacy. Society is embracing Orwellian concepts at an accelerated rate, but the tools we use for liberation are being turned against us.
In The Circle, Privacy Is Theft
The Circle — based on the David Eggers novel of the same name — is an upcoming film that tackles that particular paradox. Protagonist Mae (Emma Watson) is charmed by the glitzy, Silicon Valley utopia of The Circle, a fictional company who represent an amalgamation of mighty tech-based entities such as Facebook, Twitter, Google, Apple and Paypal. Their mission: To make everyone's lives easier by streamlining all online activity.
Under the veil of convenience, The Circle believe in mottos such as "secrets are lies," "sharing is caring" and "privacy if theft." One of their leading inventions, SeeChange, is an example of their zealous quest to turn personal into public; small, portable cameras broadcast users every action in real-time, ready to be accessed by anyone.
#EmmaWatson's Mae becomes embroiled in the conflict between surveillance, privacy, safety and transparency. As preached in the trailer by Bailey (Tom Hanks), one of the company's "Three Wise Men": "Knowing is good, but knowing everything is better."
This extreme perspective on the desire to pry seems like an over-hyped, dystopian take on an unlikely scenario of where society could end up in years to come. More accurately, while we'd like to think is an extreme and unlikely scenario, the truth is, #TheCircle has disturbing parallels to real life.
The Circle: Based On A True Story?
In 2013, computer programmer and former CIA employee Edward Snowden dramatically leaked classified information relating to the National Security Agency (NSA), an organization who were undertaking surveillance on a unfathomable scale. Part of the leak included details of an NSA operation known as PRISM, a clandestine operation that collected communication information on millions across the world.
It was revealed that the NSA are capable of accessing emails, phone calls, file transfers, information on social media, browsing history, videos and photos stored on a mobile device, and even Skype calls — all of this information could be retrieved by NSA employees, even those with low ranking.
Although allegedly used for the benefit of national security, 90 percent of data was collected from innocent civilians. And, in a chilling reflection of Bailey's attitude toward privacy in The Circle, at the time much of the defence was tied in with the "nothing to hide" argument, claiming that only those who have been committing criminal acts should be concerned.
In 2009, before the NSA leak, Eric Schmidt — CEO of Google at the time — shared that view. In comments reported by PC World, he said:
"If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place, but if you really need that kind of privacy, the reality is that search engines including Google do retain this information for some time."
Lights, Cameras, Action
The nothing to hide argument also lends itself to to surveillance of a different kind: CCTV. The world is saturated with surveillance cameras, and concerns have been raised over the advancement of such technology. In London, there are 420,000 CCTV cameras. What initially seems like a positive for personal safety takes a different slant when you add facial recognition software to the mix.
In what will be akin to The Circle's SeeChange, masses of digital data collected from cameras can now be trawled through by facial recognition software. Furthermore, additional software can link that information with a person's whereabouts, allowing governments to track the movement of masses. In an interview with Wired, Rachel Robinson, policy officer at advocacy group Liberty, explained why this is an issue. She said:
"[CCTV could] Fundamentally alter the relationship between individual and state and have a chilling effect on freedom of speech and assembly. When paired with new technologies — movement detection and facial recognition in this case — it has the potential to be a mind-blowingly intrusive tool, providing an incredibly detailed picture of where we go, who we meet, what we do."
This is fine for catching terrorists, you may fairly argue. However, this technology has already had questionable applications, such as scanning the face of over 100,000 civilian attendees to Download festival in the UK as a "preventative measure" by Leicestershire Police. The only problem being they didn't plan on telling attendees beforehand, and the year before, there were only 91 arrests out of the 120,000 music-lovers who attended. Hardly a call for such intrusive measures.
As for signs of surveillance slowing down, well, that looks unlikely. In the UK, the government have just passed the Investigatory Powers Act, a.k.a. the Snooper's Charter, giving the nation almost unlimited spying power. In the US, President-elect Donald Trump is expected to increase the surveillance powers of the FBI, the CIA and the NSA.
Before you think you're safely tucked away from Big Brother while entering your own home, don't be overly confident. The hacking of private webcams is an ever-increasing crime, a tool used in extortion and humiliation. In April this year, live footage was broadcast on YouTube from a collection of hacked webcams, and the threat is so real, Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg and the head of the FBI both actively cover their webcams. Yikes.
A Slogan Of Our Generation
Another facet of Mae's immersion into The Circle's world is the use of "PartiRank," a score given to people based on their social interactions. Eggers was even ahead of Charlie Brooker on this one, including the concept in the novel, years before the #BlackMirror episode "Nosedive."
Disturbingly, both writers are on to something: In China, this system could become a reality, with plans for branding its citizens with a rating using huge amounts of data collected from user's online activity on laptops and smartphones. The resulting score would then be used to deny anything from bank loans to travel plans. Orwell would not be amused.
Add all of these worrying developments together, and The Circle turns from a far-fetched thrill into a warning about what is to come. The words of Bailey may come from a place of fiction, yet in a world with increasing online surveillance, CCTV facial recognition and apps that track our GPS location, "knowing is good, but knowing everything is better" could become the slogan of our generation.
The Circle is released on April 28, 2017.
Is privacy theft? Or a basic human right?