The Big Brother Theory

(Image from BT)

Amazon has announced a slew of products last week, including what’s been called AmazonBasics microwave (yes, you read that right. A kitchen microwave). With those announcement, Amazon not only has firing across the bow towards their competitors (and probably their own existing partners as well), but launching a blitzkrieg onto them. I wonder how many of those will throw their towel with Amazon’s marketplace and how many would just bite the bullet and keeping Amazon as one of their new frenemies. Echo, and its slew of variations, will do the job keeping Google (with their Google Home) at bay and keep on creeping our home with their smart assistance devices. I guess it’s just a matter of time before Amazon buy a homebuilding company and build smart homes for all of us, rather than partnering with someone else.

While in Cupertino, Apple has announced the latest model of Apple Watch (Apple Watch Series 4) which, among other features, has fall detection and an ECG test. Consider Tim Cook is a health freak and sits on Nike’s board, it’s no surprise that a smartwatch that can monitor our health will be something on his radar and should be one of his signature project. After all, the late Steve Jobs has claimed his popular signature products like iMac, iPod & iPhone. Tim should want something as well as his legacy at Apple.

As for Google, well, they still has to play some catch up with their Google Home to compete with Amazon. Consider the amount of geniuses within Google, it shouldn’t be too hard for them to create a technology that can leapfrog Amazon Echo, right (P/S : I was being cynical BTW)? Whether it’s commercially successful or a flop like Google Buzz, the jury is still out. But since we live at the age of Google (anybody still use Bing nowadays?), what’s another additional stuff coming out from Mountain View, right? It’s not like we have to surrender anything to them, other than our data. After all, that’s how they tailored their products and make our lives better. Or at least makes us feel better.


The Invasion of Smart Devices Into Our Home & Vehicle


(Amazon Echo. Image from of Wikipedia)

The story of technology big behemoth like Amazon, Google & Apple creeping into our homes, our vehicles & our lives has not become a big scandal (except this, which may be considered as minor. After all, if it’s a major crisis, where’s the Senate hearing?). We no longer feel awkward sharing our thoughts with some machine who might be listening to us all the time and transmitting it to data centres hundred or thousand of miles away. We look at it as part of living in the 21st century.

And it’s not something new. We already have OnStar, developed by GM in mid-90s, mbrace (for Mercedes-Benz vehicles) and BMW Assist (obviously not for Audi vehicles) systems or services that ranges from basic roadside assistance to remote unlocking, vehicle diagnostics and theft recovery. The vehicle that we drove or ride everyday already has technology embedded inside it that it’s more like a supercomputer which happens to have a wheel, engine and nice leather seats, rather than an expensive, moving box. And we have no qualm about it right? After all, if the vehicle manufacturer can help us locate our stolen vehicle, why should we complaint?

And if one day, we could detect our loved ones, especially the elderly, the disabled, the physically-challenged or even our infants fell or faint, it should be good, right? I mean, at least we have the mean to monitor them in case they are in emergency situation. Or better yet, like Apple Watch that has ECG test feature, can prevent the worse from happening in the place. Like the old mantra said, prevention is better than cure.

And with all the proliferation of smart devices, smart living and smart vehicles, it’s time we should ask ourselves about when and how will authorities coming in to monitor us, in the name of maintaining public safety? Or better yet, we should ask when will authorities stomping in with marching order that they should have access into those devices, in order to guarantee the law & order and common good.


Should We Let Authorities In?


This brings a dilemma to us as public and private citizen. Should we let the authorities coming in and demanding access in the name of monitoring & guaranteeing a good, safe & peaceful  living condition? Should we insist the authorities coming in to protect us? Should we let authorities coming in into our neighbours, so that we feel safe, especially if we live in common building like high-rise residential areas? Or should we demand that authorities stay behind, and inadvertently let our technology companies do the job? Will we stuck between rock and hard places? Will those tech companies shared our private information, without our consent, if authorities coming in with a court order, all in the name of preventing, say, terrorism and crimes?

I guess we’re not the only on who are in dilemma in this scenario. On the on hand, we love our privacy. We love to live without constantly thinking whether or not they are a Big Brother (whomever it might be) watching us from God-knows-where, but at the same time, we appreciate and cherish the chance that if we’re in trouble, somebody out there already in the know and ready to help us. After all, I’m sure we don’t want story like this or this happened to our loved ones. Some may argue that giving an access of those smart devices (a backdoor if you will) will actually increases the number of potential hacking, and a backdoor attempt might proven futile exercise. The authorities may argue that in order to do better job of preserving safety & harmony, a necessary monitoring and surveillance might be needed.

Before going any further, I must admit that I’m a big fan of current Marvel movies (but not comics). And whatever the criticism, opinion or even a slightest news about a technology that can monitor or nudge our behaviour, this scene came to my mind. All. The. Time.

Just in case if you still need some clue, it’s from 2014’s Captain America : The Winter Soldier (video from YouTube).

The scene shows how Zola explained how, after World War 2, HYDRA’s agents managed to infiltrate SHIELD and turned it into a deep state organisation and manipulating the whole world so that in the end, everyone will (hopefully) embrace the idea that being monitored aggressively should be considered a normalcy, all in the name of maintaining peace and security. And of course, in the name of maintaining law and order, Project Insight will be executed so that whomever deemed a threat to the government and SHIELD (read:HYDRA) should be swiftly eliminated to ensure that stability and harmony.

Paranoid much, eh?

Well, don’t worry.  We don’t have Project Insight yet. At least, no government so far ever announced that they’re going to execute anyone who are still in high school, yet deemed a threat to a state,. And obviously no one has build a helicarrier yet or have their consciousness transferred into a supercomputer. But we do have this and this. One is relatively discreet. The other, not so much. I’ll leave it you to decide which is which.


The Era of Big Brother (Just Don’t Call Him ‘Bro’)


So wehere does this leaves us? Should we or shouldn’t we let the Big Brother watching us from afar, whatever the reason(s) might be?  Or should we ask the bigger, more important question.

Do we really have a choice?

In this era of social media and smart devices (plus, terrorism and violent attack), I sadly think that the chance of enjoying privacy is either pretty much diminished, or going to non-existent real soon. Freedom, yes. Privacy, not really. The real choice that we need to make is not whether we should have Big Brother watching us but rather, do we prefer that Big Brother is located in Washington D.C. or in Silicon Valley? No prize for guessing the right answer. Amazon (and its ilk) may argue that the ‘surveillance’ is to make sure that their invention works as intended, hence important for future development and benefits us even more. Government will argue that it’s for preventing future terrorist group or lone-wolf attack (which I can agree with, to some extent), because that’s their mandate and civic duty towards their citizens (and taxpayers). Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg never put a gun onto our skull and force us to use their products. And any government would be deemed incompetent if the failed to deny an attack or civil unrest.

One is stick, the other is carrot. Again, I leave it to you to decide which is which.

How soon before we can expect that our government will make it a mandatory for, say Google Nest, to be connected to the local police or fire department, so that in the event of potential fire, the local fire department will get an early warning and prepared their apparatus? Or will there be a possibilities where government will enforce that all vehicles must be equipped with dashcam and black box (like modern airplane), so that in the event of accident, there will be record to assist in investigations. Will government one day asked for an access to our indoor security camera, in order to prevent theft or assault in our home? Sounds good if it’s to prevent burglary or domestic abuse, but should we give blanket consent to it? As the possibilities of smart devices encroaching our home (and lives) growing larger, so as the security threat that it can detects, hence argument from authorities to be part of the game. If authorities has that kind of ability, will it make difference to say, the Grenfell Tower fire? Or California fire? (may those who were perished rest in peace)

Of course it’s good to have a helping hand (or rescue party) ready to help. I’m all for it. But the question is ‘how much before it becomes too much’? Will we end up like a boiling frog? Or will we end up like George Orwell’s 1984?


The Fragile, Balancing Act


We need to face the fact that as user and citizen, we are part of the dilemma. And to some extent, we are part of the problem. Think about it for a moment. We use Google, Amazon, Facebook or Twitter because we love what they can offer to us. It’s not a regulation that we must use social media. It’s not a must that we should only use Amazon if we want to buy things online. It’s not being enforced upon us that we can only use Google if we want to search things online. Basically, we are the one who gave them the power to flourish and grow. And they grew indeed. All because of us and our networking effect. If we think social media interaction is not important, Facebook will be just another Friendster or MySpace. (Even the Amish can’t resist the convenient of technology). Just like Eleanor Roosevelt said, ‘nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent’. And if we extrapolate her words, it’s clear that it’s we are the one who, for better or worse, has give our consent to them to be superior.

Same goes with our government. As much as some of them may corrupt beyond any comprehensible word, misused their power, manipulating racial sentiment and whatnot, none of them would cherish the idea that their citizens are under constant attack, especially from outsiders. We voted them (well, if such country run based on that particular system, which quite a number of them are still not) to be our our leader. And we love the idea of leaders that protects and defends us.

But, just like in Marvel’s Spiderman, with great power comes great responsibilities. As much as the technology companies should disclose how much they know about us, we should also be able to ask the same kind of responsibilities from our government. If one day they insist a backdoor to those, we should have the right to know what data and for what purposes? What and how many threats have been thwarted by ‘listening’ to us? Although in all honesty, I’m not even slightly surprised if we got a common reply with something like ‘Classified. National Security’.

On a final note :

The art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest possible amount of feathers with the smallest possible amount of hissing – Jean-Baptiste Colbert.

Just replace ‘taxation’ with ‘surveillance’, ‘feathers’ with ‘information’ and ‘goose’ with ‘people’, and the similarities seems creepy. At least for me.

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