The View

The arrival of Big Data means 1984’s Big Brother’s already here

Your mobile number is a global ID card. Look at the futuristic EPCOT Disney theme park in Florida and US navy’s new Perdix swarm drones to see what the future holds

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 January, 2017, 1:08pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 02 February, 2017, 4:44am

“Power is not a means; it is an end.”

This guiding principle drove the superstate in George Orwell’s iconic novel, 1984. Power was held exclusively by an inner elite who persecuted individualism as a thought crime.

Never in history have we lived in a world where personal freedom is so prevalent. Yes, benevolent and malevolent governments still restrict individual behaviour, but much of humankind lives today in an historically liberal time that takes pride in equality of opportunity, fairness, and justice. But for how long?

The futuristic EPCOT Disney theme park in Florida is educational with technology as its theme. When it opened 34 years ago, the interconnectivity of today’s world, where packages are delivered by drone (some lethal), could never have been imagined.

Before you arrive at EPCOT, you receive a wristband, called a MagicBand, which embeds a chip that “effortlessly” unlocks your hotel room, allows you to enter the right park, ride the attractions, and to pays for food and souvenirs. The chip traces back to your mobile number and fingerprints.

Disney knows when you enter the park, where you are, what you bought – and how to get hold of you once they have inferred your habits.

Combine this with the video release of the US Navy’s new tiny Perdix swarm drones, which is really worth watching. Each shares a distributed brain that collaborates with every other Perdix. They have no central leader but flock, swarm, and attack autonomously like a flock of birds, making it almost impossible for an enemy to defend against them.

A social credit rating could be used to reward good citizenship by providing opportunities in education and employment. If the algorithms rate you badly, borrowing and renting might become ‘difficult’

This artificial intelligence can be combined with Big Data that can identify... just you. There has been a growing clamour from “academics” in China to develop a reliable creditworthiness system.

As well as credit card and mortgage information, traffic violations, academic qualifications, convictions, taxes, family status, even computer time can be combined into a single “social credit” rating.

Many private financial companies in China are already combining Big Data and artificial intelligence to judge creditworthiness. One dating website encourages users to boast about their rating as a hook to catch prospects.

A social credit rating could be used to reward good citizenship by providing opportunities in education and employment. If the algorithms rate you badly, borrowing and renting might become “difficult”.

China’s State Council believes that social credit will “forge public opinion that trust-keeping is glorious”. The “system will reward those who report acts of breach of trust”. Could the algorithms also be programmed to identify you as a dissident, a whistleblower, or the rather stupid second son of a princeling?

Of course, trivial reasons to sacrifice your privacy are no different to Google’s request to know your location in order to find a great restaurant – and if half a billion customers of an unaware Yahoo can have their emails hacked, no data is safe.

In technological terms, we are well along the path to the 1984 dystopia. The rise of euphemistic fake news (epitomised by Donald Trump’s tweets), precisely echoes Orwell’s warning that “he who controls the past controls the future, he who controls the present controls the past”.

Orwell’s superstate was controlled by the Ministry of Peace, which waged perpetual war; the Ministry of Plenty, which created poverty to keep the people in place; the Ministry of Truth who controlled propaganda and “rectified” history to reinforce the Party’s truths; and the Ministry of Love that organised torture.

Your mobile number is already a global ID card. It is the chip in the MagicBand; the mark of the beast. You can be traced to it from your travel records, your tax identification number, or your car registration. In the 1984 superstate, Big Brother could watch you through television screens in each room, and even today you can’t have a private conversation.

Your phone can be hacked and the microphone switched on. Wait for the day when it becomes illegal to change your SIM card, in the interests of national security.

It is impossible to turn the clock back. Inevitably, those collecting Big Data find it too tempting not to exploit it for their own interests. Businesses and governments have pledged to offer better protection of personal information and to allow correction of mistaken records – but privacy is meaningless without enforcement.

We, the people, will have stay vigilant. Edmund Burke, the great 18th century parliamentarian wrote, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Richard Harris is an investment manager; writer and broadcaster; and financial expert witness .