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Cybersecurity

Big Brother could really be watching you: How secure are we really in our own homes?

Art exhibition using real images of unsuspecting people from webcams around the world highlights the need for vigilance over person privacy in this age of universal cyber connectivity

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 August, 2016, 2:02am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 August, 2016, 2:02am

How would you feel if you suddenly realised that your home was under constant surveillance? We are not saying George Orwell’s novel 1984 has finally come true. But in the age of the internet, nothing is absolutely safe; and there is no slogan reminding computer users that Big Brother is watching.

The controversy arising from a London art exhibition recently is a timely reminder of the cyber threats to privacy. Entitled Backdoored.io, the exhibition features images found by bots, which scanned unsecure webcams around the world and captured unsuspecting users in their premises, including from Hong Kong, Russia and the US. The images show, for instance, a family having dinner in the living room. Another one features a woman sitting on a sofa, all apparently unaware of the fact that they were being spied on.

Prying webcams used by artist to capture unsuspecting Hongkongers in controversial UK exhibition

As the name of the exhibition suggests, unsecure computer features are de facto back doors for hacking or surveillance. The images were obtained when users left their computers and web cameras on even when they are not in use. The artist involved said it was meant to demonstrate how fragile privacy is in what she described as the “new age of ubiquitous connectivity”.

But since the expose is also an intrusion in itself, privacy watchdogs, including the Privacy Commissioner in Hong Kong, have rightly stepped in. The artist eventually agreed to black out the faces of the people concerned.

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The controversy has triggered debate on whether the exhibition warrants artistic exemption under British privacy law. But the issue goes beyond artistic freedom. While the controversy has amplified the message about cyber security, it came at the expense of individuals’ privacy. As the artist later conceded, the images should not be shown in their original form. With technological advances come the threats of privacy intrusion. Individuals are advised to stay vigilant to escape the watchful eyes of Big Brother.