Big Brother is watching

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Greg B. Macabenta

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George Orwell’s novel, 1984, told of a society whose citizens were under constant surveillance by the government, their daily activities monitored and their actuations and attitudes controlled, with sanctions imposed on those found guilty of independent thought. Thought Police made sure that the entire citizenry abided by government mandates and behaved accordingly.

In other words, Big Brother was watching.

Published in 1949, Orwell probably calculated that his dystopian vision was set far enough into the future (35 years) to qualify as futuristic. Perhaps the end of the millennium was too remote for him to contemplate.

Two decades into this new millennium, Orwell’s concept of Big Brother has become a virtual reality.

Of course, there have been much earlier attempts by certain governments to control their citizens in various aspects of their personal lives.


Singapore, for instance, launched an information campaign to encourage the state’s highly educated women to marry and have children early in order to improve the gene pool. Then Prime Minister Lee Kwan had noted with concern that less educated women were giving birth to more children while the highly educated ones tended to marry late — or not at all — and tended to have fewer children once married.

Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany envisioned a superior race, pairing Aryan men and women to achieve this. Hitler also tried to rid the world of the “inferior” Jews. Mercifully, he failed in both of his objectives.

In this millennium, that kind of control is being implemented through advanced technology in some countries. These days, Big Brother is not just watching, but seeks to have control over people’s lives.

That control starts with the ubiquitous smart phone which every Pedro, Juan, and Maria now possesses. These phones may be too smart for comfort.

According to techies, “when you grant an app access to your camera and microphone, you are practically giving access to your private life. The app can record you at any time the app is in the foreground, take pictures and videos and upload them without your permission, run face recognition to detect facial features or expressions, livestream the camera on to the internet, detect if you are on the phone alone or with a companion, upload random frames of the video stream to your web service and run a proper face recognition software which can find existing photos of you on the internet and create a 3D model based on your face.”

Edward Snowden, the CIA employee who blew the whistle on the National Security Agency (NSA), leaked highly classified information on the agency’s operations, including a program that captures webcam images every five minutes of the video chats of Yahoo users, storing them for future use. A certain percentage of the footages archived include “undesirable nudity.”

Snowden also revealed that the NSA can listen in on your phone calls, read your messages and e-mails, capture pictures and stream videos of you, and steal your files at will.

According to Wikipedia, “Hackers can also gain access to your device with extraordinary ease via apps, PDF files, multimedia messages, and even emojis. An application called Metasploit on the ethical hacking platform Kali uses an Adobe Reader 9 (which over 60% of users still use). The hacker can use it to open a listener (rootkit) on the user’s computer, then alter the PDF with the program, send the user the malicious file, and when the user opens it, the hacker gains total control over the device remotely. Once a user opens this PDF file, the hacker can then:

• Install whatever software/app he likes on the user’s device.

• Use a keylogger to grab all of the passwords.

• Steal all documents from the device.

• Take pictures and stream videos from the camera.

• Capture past or live audio from the microphone.

• Upload incriminating images/documents to another PC.”

Naturally, Google and Facebook know all about us, including intimate secrets which we seem to have a penchant for sharing with the world.

A documentary that I stumbled upon on YouTube and which I shared on social media focused on China, which has become one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world.

China is said to have implemented a highly advanced facial recognition system that can scan the faces of its billions of citizens and keep the information in a database.

One may recall that it did not take the London police long to identify the terrorists who bombed the tube (the city’s subway system) and a double-decker bus in 2005. This was because of the hundreds of CCTV cameras deployed all over the city.

While the omnipresent CCTVs have provided obvious benefits in identifying criminals, the system has also been used by China to pinpoint protestors in the upheavals in Hong Kong.

China monitors its citizens through the Internet, through its CCTV systems and through other digital technologies. It is said that there are currently 200 million CCTV systems in place with the number forecast to reach over 800 million this year.

And speaking of China, from her jail cell, beleaguered Senator Leila de Lima has rang alarum bells concerning a deal that the Philippine government has closed with that country.

Called the Safe Philippines Project, it reportedly will allow China to install closed-circuit TV systems in selected cities in Metro Manila — Quezon City, Marikina, Parañaque, Pasig, San Juan, and Valenzuela — and in Davao City.

De Lima believes that this will give China “an opportunity to conduct espionage operations in the Philippines” and will also jeopardize the people’s right to privacy.

Warned De Lima: “The matter of improving the country’s technological capability in the enforcement of laws must be put on a scale to strike a balance between gaining technological competence and yielding access to information from our country and our citizens.”

Department of the Interior and Local Government Secretary Eduardo Año, on the other hand, believes that the CCTV systems “improve public safety” and will be invaluable in identifying and responding to criminal activities, as well as in disaster prevention and mitigation.

I frankly think Año has a point. The CCTV systems could have a beneficial effect on peace and order and public safety.

About increased Chinese espionage activities, I don’t think there’s anything left to know about the inner workings of our government that the Chinese and the CIA do not already have easy access to.

Well, maybe the Chinese can spy on the CIA. But there shouldn’t be any doubt that the spies of both super powers have long been doing that to each other.

However, philandering husbands have reason to worry. The CCTVs could expose their extramarital activities to their wives, as well as to blackmailers.

In this regard, Philippine public officials have nothing to worry about. They parade their girlfriends and mistresses around town and even bring them on official trips.

In the Philippines, even if Big Brother is watching, he is also doing the same thing.


Greg B. Macabenta is an advertising and communications man shuttling between San Francisco and Manila and providing unique insights on issues from both perspectives.