An Orwellian World of Surveillance and Digital Monitoring

Earlier this week I was invited to speak to a Yr13 English class that are currently studying the George Orwell classic dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty Four. It’s a novel high on big government surveillance and low on individual freedoms and so the teacher asked me to share a few thoughts on this and how this impacts on our daily lives from an ICT perspective.

I decided I’d start with this humorous clip from the 2010 film Four Lions, a film about some try hard jihadis who fear the “feds” are constantly watching them under surveillance, so consequently they go to extreme ends to defeat any tracking attempts from “big brother”

Whilst portrayed in a funny way, the reality is the tracking through cell phones and GPS satellites is very real; the police located sports presenter Tony Veitch after his attempted suicide a few years ago by tracking his cellphone and more recently, the efforts to locate missing Malaysian Airlines MH370 via satellite pings.

From this broad and high level introduction, I tried to personalise it and asked the students who had uploaded a photo to the internet (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, a Blog etc) within the last month – virtually every hand went up. I then asked them to clarify – who had uploaded a photo taken on a traditional camera, either a pocket camera or SLR – only 3-4 hands this time. Who had used a smart phone (virtually all which add GPS co-ordinates into the photo) – the vast majority of hands. With the platform set, I showed them this video clip:

What surprised me was that for many students they simply did not care if other people knew where they were taking photos, nor that they had the ability to track down their location. There was a disconnect between the perception of retaining a degree of anonymity with their online behaviour and profile, with the increasing ease that strangers or online companies like Facebook could build a digital footprint of them and start connecting that with a “real person.”

This led to a good discussion around Digital Citizenship and what measures were reasonable to undertake to keep safe online. Trying to personalise the experience further, we discussed what activities students undertook all the time at St Andrew’s College that contributed towards a digital footprint that could be tracked or analysed. Things such as the following all revealed their physical location at any time:

This last one proved particularly useful as I pulled up a real time map of the third floor of the Arts Block and it showed the students who had smart phones that had automatically associated with the wireless access point in the classroom:

The 3rd floor of the Arts Block showing devices connected wirelessly to the network

The 3rd floor of the Arts Block showing devices connected wirelessly to the network

Using this example, I also showed how easy it was to create a digital trail showing where a user had walked during the day, with their phone or laptop automatically associating with each wireless access point along the way. Here is a copy of the classrooms my work smartphone connected to as I went about my day on the campus.

The rooms my phone automatically connected to during the day.

The rooms my phone automatically connected to during the day.

Finally, to complete the “monitoring” picture of internet usage at St Andrew’s College we looked at the real time logs of our firewall reporting tools (Fortinet’s Fortianalyzer) and I showed them how many attempts by students were currently being blocked – the amount of Facebook requests elicited a laugh from the students present.

In the end, it was an eye opener for most of the students just how much of a digital footprint they create, even just during their time on campus here at St Andrew’s. What I tried to emphasis was their wider online presence and how this was creating a profile that companies like Google, Facebook and others will use in a variety of different ways.

There is, of course, a tradeoff. Many of the most useful and well liked tools we have come to rely on require “location aware” services and are provided either free or very cheaply, because advertising is supporting them. The question I left with each of the students was this: just how much of their privacy are they prepared to “give up” in return for the benefits and convenience of these internet based services.

Unlike Orwell’s world in Airstrip One where dissenting views or attempting to evade surveillance was seen as a thought crime, we still have a degree of choice in how much of a digital footprint we leave.

Here is a copy of the powerpoint I used, or embedded below:

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