Sci-Fi & Surveillance: Is it still fiction?

Science fiction, at its heart, is an exploration of human nature. It can show idealistic visions of utopian futures or bleak, nightmarish dystopias where a totalitarian government has unrestricted access to people’s lives. While those futures are exaggerated for effect, sci-fi can tell us where the surveillance state may lead.

The idea of a surveillance state constantly checking up on the lives of its citizens became more plausible with the spread of computers as reliable tools for data monitoring. Organisations have already realised their potential; the Los Angeles Police Department now has a ‘Real Time Analysis & Critical Response Division’ which uses algorithms to compile data about the locations of previous crimes and send additional patrols to that area. These algorithms cannot predict who will commit a crime, only where a crime is most likely to occur. This idea may seem reminiscent of Minority Report, in which the police use psychics to catch criminals guilty of ‘pre-crime’ – the intention to commit a crime in the future.

The idea of pre-crime does seem far-fetched, but even here in the UK several protesters of the recent Royal Wedding found themselves under arrest before they started demonstrating. It was suggested the police could have only known their intentions from ‘private’ messages exchanged between protesters on social media, which makes these pre-emptive arrests quite sinister; especially when you consider that protesting is not illegal. Should governments be given the power to monitor all communication between citizens?

© Danny Wilson
Illustration © Danny Wilson

The ever-increasing links between the internet and daily life continue to cloud the issue of human rights online. Tablets, mobile phones and even bank cards send data about you over the internet when used.  This makes it easy for a person or agency with the right technology to track your movements. Films like The Matrix have investigated the idea of humanity becoming dependent on computers for survival. We are not at that point yet, but it’s clear to see how reliance on the internet can be very useful for anyone wishing to monitor a person’s actions, whether they are businesses, governments or security agencies.

No chatter about privacy invasions would be complete without mention of George Orwell’s 1984. Published in 1949, the book tells of surveillance across every aspect of life by a totalitarian ‘Big Brother’, manipulation of public information and a ‘Thought Police’ to ensure there are no negative feelings towards the government. In 1949, it was unthinkable that the UK would have over 6 million CCTV cameras capturing images of us up to 300 times a day without permission, but now it’s hard to remember what life was like before the cameras. There is evidence that CCTV doesn’t deter criminals, however it does increase societal anxiety and is actually fuelling our fear of crime.

You have nothing to worry about if you have nothing to hide, right? When considering privacy rights and surveillance, there needs to be a clear distinction between secrecy and privacy. Secrecy is how criminal plots are created and this is what agencies like the NSA and GCHQ endeavour to eliminate to keep their countries safe. Privacy is the reason there is a lock on the toilet door; you have nothing to hide but it’s nice to have some space to yourself. In a ham-fisted attempt to eliminate secrecy, governments of the world are blatantly disregarding the privacy rights of their own citizens, as was predicted by science fiction over 50 years ago.

Science fiction is a hard-hitting critique of modern society with trends extrapolated to create a commentary on social issues. It would be easy to dismiss sci-fi merely as stories but, due to the parallels between science-fiction from past and current society, it may be wise to heed its warnings, before it’s too late.


Evan Canwell 


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