30 years after '1984' was set, has Big Brother arrived?

2014-01-26T00:00:00Z 2014-01-26T23:19:09Z 30 years after '1984' was set, has Big Brother arrived?Vanessa Renderman vanessa.renderman@nwi.com, (219) 933-3244 nwitimes.com

"Big Brother is watching you."

What served as a theme in the 1949 George Orwell social science fiction novel about surveillance and mind control, "1984" is creeping into society as nonfiction.

Cameras in flashing blue boxes stand sentinel at intersections in urban neighborhoods.

Red light cameras capture motorists who take too much liberty with a stale yellow light or who disobey signs prohibiting right turns on red. Later, a fine arrives in the mail, complete with photos of the violation and maybe a website link to view the infraction on the Internet.

Bars scan identification cards. Tanning salons use fingerprint sign-ins.

Body scanning machines examine shoeless people who stand with their arms in the air in a cylinder that spins around them before they proceed to their departure gate at the airport.

Families can monitor each other's cellphone location, with a map indicating where the person in the call plan is at any given moment.

Thirty years since 1984, and a degree of the surveillance Orwell envisioned is happening.

"I definitely can see the parallels," said Marie Eisenstein, associate professor of political science at Indiana University Northwest in Gary. "Many, many citizens feel they are being watched by Big Brother. In part, I think it's a fair critique. In part, it's not fair."

The National Security Agency has been under scrutiny as the true scope of its data collection – particularly into phone records – comes to light. 

Eisenstein said society is dealing with the unprecedented ability to gather data electronically.

If someone were to write a letter and mail it to another person, the government has the authority to track who it is being mailed to, but it doesn't have the right to look inside the letters, she said.

"Those defending the NSA say they're looking at who you're emailing, not looking inside," she said.

On the other hand, it may be easier to obtain the contents of an email than a letter.

"In today's technological world, the line is much more easily breached," she said. 

Eisenstein's lesson plans focus more on how the American government functions, but the issue of surveillance comes up.

"There's a lot of skepticism, a lot of uneasiness with government surveillance programs," she said.

Hammond Police Chief Brian Miller has encountered some skepticism about the city's four crime prevention cameras.

People were suspicious at first, worried that police could spy on their personal business and peek in their windows. He explained that isn't the case and offered to show people the camera footage as proof of what officers see. Now, residents are accustomed to the cameras.

"They have flashing blue lights, so it's evident where they are," he said.

Miller recalled an instance in which Hammond officers observed a drug deal happen on camera. They responded to the scene and the drug dealer was shocked and confused.

A camera, "doesn't replace officers; however, it can be a useful tool," Miller said.

Miller wants to expand camera use in the city.

"I would like to have more cameras and have almost a constant surveillance at basically every exit and entrance to Hammond," he said.

He also would like to see school security cameras linked to squad car laptops, so police know what they're heading into, especially in an active shooter situation.

The department has used surveillance footage from cameras at businesses to help make arrests. Security camera footage from a business helped identify the Boston Marathon bombers, he said.

"That's a great example of the advantages of the technology," he said.

Bars are encouraged to use ID scanners and indoor and outdoor video cameras, Miller said.

The department would like to acquire technology that automatically scans license plates and technology that can accept fingerprints via iPad.

Eisenstein said the more society accepts technology that can be considered surveillance, the less likely we will revert. A return to using cash only is unlikely, for example.

"I don't think we're willing to give up the conveniences," she said.

Even with all the benefits technology brings, humans are still at the core.

"Technology will never trump sociology," she said. "For all of our uses of technology, we have to remember we are still social beings."

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