Little Brother – The less obvious, and more concerning intruder on privacy

The Orwellian Big Brother is well engrained in modern, technologic society. Given the recent revelations by Snowden, and the new examination of actions taken by the NSA, GCHQ, and the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence community, it appears that such concerns are of some value. Government monitoring should merit some concern, as governmental institutions are endowed with capabilities and mandates beyond most other organizations. After all, national security is a legitimate concern. In an era where enemies blend in with the common population, uniforms are discarded, and the ‘lone wolf’ can perpetrate actions of great harm, should not the people charged with societies protection seek whatever methods they can employ in the pursuit of that task? It therefore makes sense that the possibility of overreach exists, and thus, that society should seek to limit what we collectively permit for our own protection.

I do not wish to undermine endeavors to protect privacy and civil liberties with regard to our governments. However, we run the risk of becoming techno-hypocrites. We (society) frequently pierce our own privacy in ways that the government cannot. Our webs of social media reveal increasingly more about ourselves. I am not immune. Someone who can access my facebook could, for example, extrapolate my favorite running routes. A distilling of my posts would reveal my likes and dislikes. What books I decide to ‘like’ likely reveal my taste in literature. My network speaks to whom I establish friendships with. It may be that it takes government backdoors to read my private messages, texts, and emails – but much can be gleaned from simple observation. This more obtuse invasion of privacy, perpetrated by our own means of communication and information systems, is more of a Little Brother.

I came to the conclusion that while the possible risks of allowing Big Brother to dictate our world are important, we must not ignore Little Brother. What characteristics does Little Brother hold? He is not so interested in governing, nor is he interested in security, nor power. Not in the traditional Orwellian sense. Little Brother is interested in knowledge, negotiation, and leverage. Little Brother, much like his counterpart in a familial analog, relies on convincing others that they want to listen to him.

Who is Little Brother in our modern world? The ubiquitous ads that dot our social media are a reasonable example. They are tailored to our searches, and present their knowledge in a way designed to be deferential. Would you perhaps be interested in this product, or in this trip? Very often, Little Brother is found in our histories and cookies, tied to our browsers and IP addresses, hooked into our phones and tablets. Advertising is the most obvious example, and the information is most commonly leveraged to sell products.

This is not an unknown concern. Surveys of internet-users often reveal that they do not like such ‘behavioral advertising,’ especially when they are educated about the methods used. The EU recently established the right to be forgotten, or the concept that individuals should be able to petition the removal of information from search engines. However, the practical application is much harder to establish than the concept.

My idea is by no means original, so why should we, as individuals and societies, be concerned about Little Brother? Big brother, with his obsessive pursuit of power, is surely the bigger threat? That might well be true, but as such, he receives much more attention. Big Brother seeks to discover which members of society are abnormal, and are pursuing agendas against the status quo. His motivations are easier to understand, and his offenses more easily provoke countermeasures.

Little Brother, on the other hand, seeks to know who everyone is and how the interact with everyone else. His interest is more mercantile, more subtle, and thus harder to counteract. After all, does it not make sense that advertising should be better tailored to the individual? Is it not better both for the advertiser and the individual? Online, you only see the advertisements that you would want to see. How bad could that be?

Yet, we have established courts and procedures to guard against Big Brother, because he is easier to see. Yet our own civil rights, Freedom of Speech, for example, allow Little Brother to flourish. Therefore, we ourselves must be careful about what we reveal. To guard against profiles of ourselves, trading between advertising agencies and companies online, we must guard against ourselves. That is the far harder task.

Big Brother is the bigger threat to privacy, but Little Brother is the bigger risk. In our modern society, then, we ourselves are the greatest risk to our own privacy. It may be that we don’t mind so much (though surveys seem to indicate against this) given the amount of ourselves we bare to the world online. But, if we so angrily push back against governmental intrusions into our online platforms, should not the same anger be aroused when less accountable companies do the same? Facebook, for example, has seen numerous outcries to do with privacy, but it remains a vast system of subtle societal surveillance. Recent discussions about possible emotional manipulation on Facebook make this matter only more concerning.

I cannot think of any obvious way to counter this non-governmental monitoring. We place ourselves into the hands of private organizations, and there are naturally consequences to this. Additionally, there are critical mass problems. People want to remain connected with their friends, and so they have to use systems that contain those friends. That there are limited options of response, though, only make it more important to be aware that Little Brother is there. I think the analogy is apt because of this lack of constraint. Have you ever been told to be careful what you say around little siblings, because they are listening and watching? In our online profiles, the same advice applies.

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