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BlueWolf's Howl

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June 18, 2002

Big Brother

In George Orwell’s 1984, you are given a view of a future world which is run by the Party – led by a figure called Big Brother. It was first published in 1949 and has been a staple of many high school literature programs.

My first exposure to the book was around 1974. I was a young high school student who disliked being told what to do by everyone 30 and over. We all did. And to think that the government would (in the future) spy on us [like our parents did] and control us [like our parents did], well, this just couldn’t come to pass. So, along with the teens before me and the teens after me, we guarded against it.

And we did a good job. I must give credit to the government – even in these trying times – they don’t spy on us like that (yet). A recent article in The Washington Post about the FBI speaks about the way such excesses have been guarded against. You have more powerful technology in front of you than the FBI was allowed (until very recently). You could do more spying on your Internet neighbors than the FBI could. We won. Or did we?

Look in your car (or the next rental car you use). Is there a Global Positioning System device in your car? While we tied the hands of those who were supposed to have the tools to protect us, we welcomed such luxuries as Onstar. Yes, it’s very nice to push a button and get roadside assistance. It’s nice to be able to track your vehicle if it gets stolen. But, who’s tracking it while you’re still driving it? Once the data of your current position is generated, who checks to see that it doesn’t fall into the “wrong hands?” What about the data of your movement for the last week? (Or month or year?) Is it destroyed? Is it kept? Who keeps it? Who has access to it? Could your employer use it against you if you called in sick and went to the beach instead? Could your spouse or ex-spouse obtain that information? Could it be used in court one day? Good thing “Big Brother” isn’t tracking us.

And for those who don’t have a GPS in their vehicle…look at your key chain and look in your wallet. Wasn’t it nice of those grocery stores, video rental chains, and pharmacies to give you a customer reward account? At CVS you earn $1 for every $25 you spend. In return for that dollar, you have given them permission to track your spending habits. Isn’t that nice? They can make even more money by telling Crest that you use Colgate. Since your address is included in the information you gave them to get the card (and you want to put the correct address to make sure you get that precious $1 per $25 spent), they can mail you a coupon to entice you to switch brands. Ah! You win again, don’t you? Well, what about the rest of the items you bought? When they swipe that card, the data for the items on that purchase is now tied to you – in their database. Who guards that information? Who has access to it? Is the time and date recorded along with the purchase? Can someone track your movement or deduce your habits? You didn’t even know you went to the CVS by your house every Tuesday. But someone looking at the data knows your habits. They know your habits well. They’re documented.

What about Blockbuster’s Special Rewards? I once got a printout of all the movies I had rented that year. The info is in the database. Any teen with a Blockbuster shirt and badge can access that information. At this moment, I’m not too concerned that anyone knows I’ve seen Pi or Being John Malkovich. But, I might be concerned about a more controversial movie. Would I want anyone to know I rented a controversial movie without knowing what I thought of it? Perhaps I didn’t cheer for Darth Vader as they presumed I would just by my movie choice.

Yes, Big Brother is here. Have you seen him? He’s the one with the pocket protector in the air-conditioned server room. They call him a Database Administrator. But don’t call him a geek. He knows your habits.

Posted by BlueWolf on June 18, 2002 08:44 PM