Big Data is watching you, and Big brother is controlling you

Authors: Md. Sohrab Hossen and Md. Obaidullah

Big brother is watching you” is a repeated phrase used throughout the whole novel 1984 by George Orwell to characterise the ruler of Oceania, a totalitarian society in which the governing party, Ingsoc, has complete control over the public “for its own sake.” Every inhabitant in the society Orwell depicts is always being watched by the government, mostly through telescreens. It was the imagination of Orwell of the future London of 1984, as the book was published in 1949.

What can we say now? Should we change the phrase, or is it still valid? I would say “No”! We would rather say, “Big Brother is controlling you”. How is it so? Moreover, even if it is, why should you care?

In recent years, with the tremendous advances in every field of science and technology, some issues of personal freedom, choice of expression etc., have emerged. Big data is likely watching you, or the algorithm knows your google search history. Not only modern technologies such as 5G, AI, machine learning, big data, IoT, blockchain, cloud computing, virtual reality, and cybersecurity have been transporting significant advances in the quality of life and experience of homo sapiens, but also these sophisticated techs have brought many ominous complications.

These technologies may pose a threat to liberal democracy, and the government can use technologies to control and monitor people all the time. Dictators may use IT to exercise their illegitimate power or to violate citizens’ rights.

While the traditional dictatorship system was characterised by a single leader or group of leaders who used military power to dominate mass people, there was no scope for political pluralism and freedom of voice; big data and the advancement of AI enable the processing of massive amounts of data, which might make a centralised system. Thus, the fascinating inventions of science, such as AI and robotics, might be used to help tyrants achieve their goals by just writing a line of code. Robots do not hesitate to carry out commands. If it were the robot’s action, the Military coup attempted in Turkey against the Erdoğan government on 15 July 2016 could be successful.

Furthermore, robust surveillance algorithms can be the worst thing ever to happen to humanity if used by an authoritarian ruler. For example, in Palestine, already today, Palestinians are likely to be monitored by Israeli microphones, cameras, drones, or spy software Pegasus anytime they make a phone call, post anything on Facebook, or travel between cities.

While the Palestinian Authority administers several cities and villages in the West Bank, Israel controls the skies, radios, and the Internet. As a result, it takes a relatively tiny number of Israeli troops to successfully oversee the West Bank’s 2.5 million Palestinians. The same thing is happening in Kashmir, where even during performing Friday prayers at the local mosque, multiple police surveillance drones are seen hovering above them. Furthermore, the children’s unsuccessful attempt to bring down the drones by hurling stones high into the air took place on 23 August 2019. Followingly, it would be an injustice if we did not mention the Chinese IT-backed authoritarianism over the Uyghurs.

The Chinese government uses technology to perfect its censorship mechanisms. An AI system can filter and prevent unfavourable content from the regime. During the Hong Kong protests, the Chinese regime tightened its “Great Firewall,” eliminating subversive content from mainland China’s Internet almost promptly. To prevent opposition members from communicating, organising, or publicising their messages, digital autocracies can limit all citizens’ access to the Internet (or significant portions of it). The government successfully turned off the Internet nationwide during widespread protests in Iran.

Besides, biotechnology advancement is also seen as anti-democratic. Can you imagine a situation when you had a minor operation and someone, maybe the authoritarian ruler, has placed a micro cheap inside you that directly connects your brain and controls your ideology? What if, in this way, you become an active player of a tyrant ruler from a threat to his regime?

Therefore, we have to be careful and aware of our data. We must first be conscious and then careful so that none becomes able to misuse our personal or financial data. We should not disseminate our very personal information on the Internet or social media, yet, night and day, that is what we, homo sapiens, are doing with great enthusiasm. So, halt; otherwise, you lose the war before even you meet your enemy.

Md. Sohrab Hossen
Md. Sohrab Hossen
Senior Research Assistant, BRAC James P Grant School of Public Health, BRAC University.