Nineteen Eighty-Four was a novel by George Orwell published in 1949. It was about his view of a controlled society where the people didn’t have any choice but follow the state. Under the watchful eye of Big Brother, there was no choice but for citizens to follow the laws and not to stray. With Big Brother watching every street corner, people knew that they would be caught – and it was only a matter of time.
Invasion of privacy by governments
This invasion of privacy was the main concern against putting up street cameras in major cities in the United Kingdom, a program that has proven to be successful despite the opposition by private citizens and human rights organizations. The fear of invasion of privacy was also raised when there was a proposal to put up microphones in a major city in the United States. These microphones were part of a program enabling triangulation of gunfire within the city. Because the resulting data would be random and there was no assurance as to what could be mined from such data, the program did not prosper beyond proof of concept.
At every turn, concerns of preservation of individual privacy against government misuse have been the defense against efforts to randomly monitor the citizenry. For the most part there have been legislation instituted after 9/11 in the United States which allows for monitoring of private communication. Though these have not shown any discernible improvement in fighting terrorism, these measures have not been repealed and continue to be used by federal law enforcement agencies.
Not a monopoly of governments, though
Invasion of privacy is not a monopoly of governments. One of the most plebeian manner of invasion of privacy is voyeurism. But voyeurism is predicated on a person in his own private space being surreptitiously watched by a peeping tom. Other than that, one other common instance of invasion of privacy is that of the paparazzi stalking celebrities for scoops and pictures.
Some things have not changed
Orwell’s 1984 and the instances of the peeping tom and the paparazzi are based on old technology and mindset. The success of the peeping tom is based on being hidden and keeping the knowledge of the activity to himself. The paparazzi, on the other hand, stalks his prey on the hopes of a big payday for the photograph shot. These motivations are well understood and have not changed even with the advent of technology.
But technology is now changing all that. Privacy concerns are not yet on the forefront of the collective consciousness. But the tools are already in the hands of the populace. The state does not need to monitor its citizens. With the technology in their own hands, it is the citizenry which can monitor governments and other citizens.
Private citizens initiatives
Efforts by private citizens to keep local government officials from putting their names and faces on billboards – the issue of the EPALS, is just one instance where the populace can police politicians. These private groups aim to raise the consciousness of the populace and fight wasteful use of the government funds. The idea is predicated on the accountability of the local officials. It is hoped that this method would put these officials to shame and not to spend money on self-aggrandizement. If the government officials put their face on the billboard, they should know that these are out in the open and can be photographed. Once photographed, the pictures can be uploaded on the Internet and put up for public ridicule.
But what would stop anyone with a camera (whether it’s a DSLR or phone camera) from uploading pictures of anyone acting stupidly? In essence, nothing. You “own” the video or the picture because you were there and you took the picture or recorded the scene. That is the paparazzi’s way of thinking. They owned the camera and they took the picture or video in a public place, and uploading the picture or the video is just the next logical step.
Commuter rage gone viral
The recent incident where a college student had an altercation with a female security blew out of proportions. Security checks have been instituted in the LRT stations where X-ray machines are used to inspect bags. It is the LRT security’s job to implement it and to make sure that every commuter follows the rules. According to the reports, the security guard had asked the college student to show her bag, as she believed the bag was not placed on the x-ray machine. What happened next was uncalled for, but was a quite common reaction. The student went ballistic, and railed against the guard.
Ten years ago, this would have been settled with a visit to the LRT administration office, and that would have been that. It was bad form, but the college student was within her rights to rant and rave and try to bully the security guard for the alleged slight. The security guard acted well in not getting into a shouting match. In fact, she was within her rights if she had collared the commuter and hauled her to the LRT office. Unfortunately, in this day and age when almost everyone has a camera phone, the incident was caught on video. It was a public place and the a random passenger recorded what happened, and it was within his rights to record the incident.
Invasion of privacy
What was not within his rights was to upload the video on the Internet. Once it was posted on social media sites, it was picked up by social networks and shared with everyone else. In no time, it was shared, commented on and discussed by people who didn’t know any of the parties in the video. There have also been parodies of the incident, and these have also been posted on video sharing sites.
Admittedly, it was a video about bullying in a public place. It was a clear case of invasion of privacy because the video was distributed and shown without the consent of the people in the video. It may not be a case of cyber-bullying, but something more basic. It was public humiliation.
Citizen journalism – a need for directions
But where does that leave us? What is the state of the ordinary gadget toting, Internet aware citizen? They have the tools, and yet don’t know it. They know what they can do, but do not know why they shouldn’t do it. There is a disconnect between knowing how to use the tools that they have and responsible use.
On the other side of the fence, anyone who ventures out in public, or where there are a lot of people, has to be on their best behavior. If they do anything out of the ordinary, there will be a chance of a video of it uploaded on the Internet, and shared on social media. There is no difference between becoming an instant singing sensation, and the butt of jokes and derision.
Oh well, on the Internet, the only metrics that matter to many are hits, likes, dislikes, shares, tweets, retweets and reblogs – which can make you a victor or a victim – your choice!
Also posted at Philippine Online Chronicles