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Are We Living in 1984, Even Though It's 2016?

07/03/2016 1:06 PM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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I went to lunch recently at a bar and bistro in town. A friend of mine works there. I rarely see him (maybe once every six months) but we're friends on social media. I also rarely see his posts, potentially because I haven't engaged enough with his content, and also because sometimes I just go 'off' the notion of social and don't engage with anyone's content.

At the bar, I checked my social networks briefly (as you do when there is a lull in conversation) and paid with my credit card. A few hours later, back home, I checked my phone again and discovered a post from said friend in my feed.

Coincidence? Unlikely. I reckon analytics and data knew where I was and who I was with. Some people might think this is a paranoid conclusion, others are resigned to the notion that big data has collated all this information about us and is able to predict our actions based on data.

George Orwell wrote 1984 in 1949, a dystopian classic set in then-future Britain. The book describes a world in a state of perpetual war and under omnipresent government surveillance. Individualism was persecuted and any independent thinking was labeled 'Thoughtcrime.'

Many of us who were born and grew up in the nineties and noughties would not be aware of the fact that Orwell coined some of the terms which have become commonplace today, like 'Big Brother'. Orwell was before his time, tapped into the matrix, or just wise enough (paranoid enough?) to see a future based on everyday surveillance.

But how 'on the grid' are we in 2016? Most of us carry around mobile phones, credit cards and travel cards. We watch television on the internet and register births and deaths and immunisations. Our lives are so 'on the grid' that we're glued to it -- in fact 'fused' might be a better word. We couldn't leave the grid, even if we wanted to.

But nobody really talks about 'the grid' anymore, and nobody really cares that so much of our information is made available not only to Government, but to big business and advertising companies. It's a mere triviality that we brush aside as we enter even more details about ourselves into web platforms such as 'Be like Bill.' I mean, who doesn't want some irrelevant haiku about our lives and a stick-figure caricature that we can share with our friends to declare how 'on-trend' we are. In reality, the makers of 'Be like Bill' have, in that single motion, collected enough big data about us and our Facebook friends to last a lifetime.

So why don't we care?

I would respond that, dissimilar to 1984, our big-data surveillance doesn't impinge on our everyday lives, or at least we don't think it does. Sure, the data is used by government organisations if a crime is committed, to protect borders and all the rest of it, but to the average punter who pays their taxes, goes to work on a daily basis and has their kids in daycare, that sort of thing is really never going to touch the sides. In my mind, the real impact of big data is the marketing and advertising potential.

How many of us are wearing fitness trackers? Fitness trackers aggregate all this personal data about your physical activity: weight, steps taken per day, sleep quality, calories burned, in some cases GPS location... You can then send this directly to a website, where you enter further data about yourself. If you stop and think about it, that's a lot of data, and fitness trackers are just one example of a data-collecting device.

Jessica Rich from the Federal Trade Commission said in a speech for Data Privacy Day in 2014, "Health data from connected devices may be collected and then sold to data programs and other companies... these companies could use your information to market other products and services to you; make decisions about your eligibility for credit, employment, or insurance; and be shared with yet other companies."

Most fitness-tracking companies indicate they don't sell personally identifiable information collected from devices. But what does that mean really? That they can sell aggregated data that doesn't point the finger at 'Lisa' per se, but 'Lisa' more broadly.

In other words, don't be surprised if you're a 50-something male who wears a fitness tracker, enjoys cycling on the weekend and usually stops with his cycling pals on Sunday to enjoy a post-workout coffee, and some sort of bike store opens up directly across the road from that coffee shop. Or your social media feed is suddenly flooded with advertising about the latest biking holiday or newest biking gadget.

Our personal details, albeit aggregated, are being served up in on a virtual platter to big business, so that they can continue advertising customer specific products to us. It's no longer the product which is relevant, but the data that can be garnered and sold.

So are we living in 1984 even though it's 2016?

What is most interesting about our compromised personal data, and the key point that Orwell missed, is that we give it up so freely. We fling our data out there like caution to the wind because, who cares, right? It's out there anyway. This is the world we live in. There are no secrets anymore. No privacy. So why not indulge in the latest Internet or smart-device craze?

We've given our privacy away so liberally, as though it weren't something to be kept and locked in the safe, which leads me to think Orwell had it right all that time ago, "If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself."

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