So George Orwell was off by 64 years.
In 1949 Orwell's masterpiece novel Nineteen Eighty-Four wove a tale about a fictitious shadowy world in which government surveillance was ubiquitous, public mind control was an open secret and independent thinking was labeled and prosecuted as a "thoughtcrime." The tyrant in control was the mysterious being called Big Brother.
Orwell's prophecies didn't materialize in the year 1984, of course, but they are on a fast track to reality today.
We're all well aware of the millions of randomly situated video cameras all across the country -- at banks, hotels, state and federal offices, schools, retail stores and other public buildings -- capturing what we do 24/7. Facial recognition systems are in place at airports, casinos, some police departments and other places we can't even fathom.
But what you may not realize is the extent to which other types of taxpayer-funded surveillance capabilities have been put in place. The Department of Homeland Security, which is spearheading much of the covert action, would surely say it is all about staying one step ahead of the terrorists. But what about the rest of us caught up in these surreptitious programs?
Take a stroll through any number of major American cities and you are likely smack in the middle of a clandestine government-funded observation zone.
Take Seattle, for example. Earlier this year, that city announced that it had bought what's called a mesh network system with about $2.7 million it got from the DHS. City officials said the system would be used by first responders as a dedicated wireless communications network in cases of emergency. Residents began to notice foot-long white boxes with stubby vertical antennas being installed at about 160 locations around downtown.
Then it was learned that each of the wireless boxes continually searches for Wi-Fi signals -- like the type emitted by your cellphone or iPad -- and stores the information at a centralized location. In other words, if you walk by one of the boxes with your cell phone it captures personal information from the phone's Wi-Fi signal. The boxes are so sophisticated that they can instantaneously store information about the the last 1,000 places you have been with that phone.
Talk about Big Brother! I don't know about you, but I'm not particularly keen on the government keeping tabs on me everywhere I go.
The Seattle Police Department has said little about the system except to explain that it isn't up and running yet. Local reporters were skeptical. When they grabbed their cellphones and passed under the mesh network boxes, their devices alerted them to the fact that the system was already online.
It feels like a real-life version of the CBS drama Person of Interest, where the disembodied voice says in the opening monologue, "You are being watched. The government has a secret system -- a machine -- that spies on you every hour of every day...."
Seattle is hardly the only city taking steps to surreptitiously keep track of its population. Countless U.S. cities have gotten multiple millions of DHS dollars to put toward various covert systems.
The IntelliStreets Lighting System is a system that converts new or existing street lights into Wi-Fi towers that connect to each other to make another kind of mesh network. A promotional video touting the energy efficiency and the "Homeland Security features" of the system makes IntelliStreets sound like the best thing since sliced bread. The company's website mentions that miniature computers inside each light allow for "security, ... data harvesting and digital media."
Think about that. As you walk or drive by a location, the poles overhead can eavesdrop on you and then store both audio and video data. You haven't done anything wrong, you say? No matter. While the system is recording you, it can also gobble up your cellphone's information at the same time.
Among the locations where IntelliStreets is already in place: Las Vegas, the Superdome in New Orleans, the Sony Pictures lot in Culver City, Calif., and the Navy Pier in Chicago.
Get set. It could be coming to your city next.
There is another eavesdropping system in place in some 70 major U.S. cities. Unlike the other systems mentioned, ShotSpotter has obvious and immediate crime-fighting benefits. It uses a network of listening devices that alert police to locations where gunshots have been detected. It has proven to be highly accurate, but when the microphones are activated, ShotSpotter has also been known to pick up and record conversations. In a shooting case in Massachusetts, the ShotSpotter audio of two men arguing became part of the criminal case. Experts say it doesn't appear that any privacy was breached, as the argument occurred outside, in a public setting, where there was no legal expectation of privacy.
If the recent NSA scandals -- domestic spying and phone taps on foreign leaders -- have taught us anything, it should be that too much surveillance results in collecting too much data that can never be adequately analyzed. Can't we stop and take a breath here and figure out if every living, breathing person needs to be subjected to surveillance to keep the country safe?
Yes, we have the technology now to monitor millions and millions of our own citizens, innocent people just going about their lives. The question is: Should we? Where's the line between controlling the technology and the technology controlling us?
If George Orwell were still alive, he would surely be warning us to take care.