When Big Brother meets Big Data, we get to live in glass houses!

Gautham Shenoy February 24, 2018 6 min

The Russian author, Yevgeny Zamyantin’s 1924 science fiction classic, We, is perhaps the most prescient dystopian novels of all time, influencing genre classics such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s 1984, and Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano, amongst others. In We, all citizens of the One State are known by an alphanumeric code. Let me rephrase that, all citizens have no names and are known only as numbers. And they all live in glass houses, in a nation made almost entirely out of glass, so that the secret police can keep a watch on all citizens. Everyone is under observation, all the time; everyone, in turn, can be an observer, a voyeur.

Metaphorically speaking, we live in glass houses today, a digitally-enabled panopticon. And we’re all helping the cause in this hyper-connected digital age, with our constant updating, usage of gadgets, apps, credit cards, and everything in between, making it easy for companies track our every move, glean insights into our personalities so that they can then be used for more purposes than one, not all altruistic, if any. Paranoid? Think not. Is it really paranoia if you’re actually being watched, and you know?

But it’s nothing new, not at all. I’ve seen it coming for a long time, as have countless others, for the pages of science fiction are so filled with stories of how corporations use surveillance and profiling that one wonders if they’re using some of these sci-fi stories as an instruction manual. Take Dave Egger’s 2013 book, The Circle for instance. The Circle is an internet company (think Facebook, Google, Twitter, LinkedIn, Apple, Amazon, all rolled into one) who’ve created a product that, “Anytime you wanted to see anything, use anything, comment on anything or buy anything, it was one button, one account, everything tied together and trackable and simple, all of it operable via mobile or laptop, tablet or retinal.” All users are tracked, but of course. And to top it all, The Circle has its own set of Orwellian principles: SECRETS ARE LIES, SHARING IS CARING, PRIVACY IS THEFT.

These seem to the guiding principles at the heart of China’s new Social Credit System (SCS), whose implementation is well underway. Under the guise of creating an ideal society based on ‘trust’ (that can be quantifiably measured) and promoting a culture of ‘sincerity’, the SCS is a national reputation system that will once fully functional, rate and rank every citizen, like it or not. And how is this ranking arrived at? By tracking, monitoring, analysing and evaluating every single thing a citizen does – who your friends are, where you buy from, what kinds of places you go to, have bills been paid on time, everything – with each behaviour rated either as positive or negative (desirable, or undesirable, as defined by the government). All of this is then distilled into that citizen’s rank, one single number that will determine the citizen’s eligibility for everything from jobs to loans, and if all goes well, whether he even qualifies for a date. After 2020, which is when the SCS becomes mandatory, China will be one big glass house, with the only wall still standing perhaps the great firewall.

Now contrast this with the Sri Lankan author Yudhanjaya Wijeratne’s book Numbercaste that I heard about recently. Described as ‘Black Mirror meets the Circle meets 1984’, though it’s set in the near-future, 2030s to be exact, it’s already been overtaken by real life. Numbercaste is a tale told through the eyes of an employee at NumberCorp, a corporation that is using data to build a new society – one where everyone’s social circles are examined, their activities quantified, and their importance distilled into the all-powerful Number. A society where everything from your home to your education to entry at the local nightclub depends on an app that states exactly how important you are. Already sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Read enough of such science fiction stories, and nothing will be too unexpected anymore.

And speaking of an all-powerful number reminds me of our own alphanumeric identity here in India, the one number to rule them all. With everything linked to it, and it being linked everywhere, like it or not, there is no ‘no aadhaar way’. But why would you not like it? It’s a small price to pay for a glorious future, isn’t it?

And all your data is as safe ‘as it should be’, as one learns when one reads Neal Stephenson’s 1994 cyberpunk short story that first appeared in Wired, Spew, a tale about hackers in the near future, prophetic for the way it describes profiling, social media and corporates mining personal data. What stands out though in this context, is its take on data security. Or rather the lack of it. And this lack of data security is not a bug, it’s a feature!

The Spew – an aggregate of all online digital data with a VR visualisation of its data stream – has a built-in backdoor that allows corporate surveillance, even by lowly a Profile Auditor (a corporate market researcher) who can access all and everyone’s data. As the protagonist of the story puts it, “Profile Auditors can do this because data security on the Spew is a joke,” writes Stark. “It was deliberately made a joke by the Government so that they, and we, and anyone else with a Radio Shack charge card and a trade school diploma, can snoop on anyone.” So much for governments protecting your data. You can read the short story in full here.

At the end of the day, I’m a realist who realises that all this is here to stay, and the only escape from it all is to go off the grid. But that’s easier said than done, for more reasons than one. As it looks, the only way one can get off the grid soon is by dying (but make sure you have a card before dying, if you want a funeral). Going off the grid when alive, comes with its own perils. Hiding makes you conspicuous. Marc Elsberg, the author of Zero, another novel that deals with corporate surveillance featuring a corporation that gathers and analyses data as a service – says, “Probably the more I try to conceal myself, the more I am likely to be watched. It’s the same effect as with mineral water. If I suddenly encrypt my emails I’m no longer part of the water but become a bubble, and therefore much easier to see.” What about privacy laws? “Oh, we can try. We might agitate, demonstrate, legislate. But in rushing to pass so-called privacy laws, we will not succeed in preventing hidden eyes from peering into our lives.” That was from David Brin’s excellent non-fiction book about ubiquitous universal surveillance, The Transparent Society.

That I’m resigned to surveillance doesn’t mean I welcome it, or am happy about it, but will learn to live it as one learns to live with a wart (I guess). And you know what they say about being a resident of glass houses, “People who live in glass houses should take bath – and change clothes – at night, with the lights off’.


Updated at 11:14 am on April 18, 2018  to fix Yudhanjaya Wijeratne’s name, which was spelled wrong earlier.