A Reflection on Modern Surveillance

By Matthew McCarthy
Technology and Innovation Writer

“Surveillance Capitalism” is the term used to describe companies surveying user behavior to predict and target the said user (Photo courtesy of Jonathan McIntosh)

“If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.” This was a line written by George Orwell in his world-famous book 1984. Written in 1948, it was set in a dystopian future where history was rewritten, “thought police” watched over the people, and Big Brother was always watching. A large part of the book was showing the dangers of a surveillance state, where every movement and action of the populace is monitored by the government. While seen as mere science fiction in the forties, the story has become increasingly believable making it worth looking at how well we have heeded Orwell’s warnings.

Looking across the Pacific Ocean at the economic and political powerhouse that is China, the government took Orwell’s book more as inspiration than warning. In 2014 China announced that it would be starting a new program known as the “Social Credit Score”. The program, which is set to be nationwide by 2020, monitors everything citizens do both in public and on the internet, which could have some drastic effects on a person’s life and family. Using a system of security cameras, facial recognition, and internet tracking, the Chinese government keeps tabs on everything their people do.

In public, the program looks for things such as smoking in non-smoking areas, jaywalking, and loitering, as well as any crimes that a person commits. On the internet they track websites that users visit but also more personal activities such as how much time people spend on social media, playing video games, and what purchases they make. If too much time or money is spent this activity can have a negative effect on a person’s score. If a person’s score dips too low, they may lose access to public transportation, certain high schools or colleges, air travel, and high-speed internet among many other things. Some see this system encourages good behaviors with incentives for good scores, such as lower interest rates on loans, however, most in America view it as a breech in privacy.

Despite public concerns about privacy, surveillance in America exercises some of the same practices as China. With the rise of companies like Ring, homeowners have a much higher degree of security in and around their homes, with the ability to check their cameras and answer their front doors from anywhere.
As technology advances so does the number of cameras and monitors Americans allow into their everyday lives with the marked difference between the American and Chinese approach being the entity in control of these devices. However, a front door camera is far from comprising most of the surveillance in America. The devices that exist in our pockets, on our desks, and in our backpacks are the major players in surveillance.

Ever since the early 2000s internet companies, such as Google, began to collect and use our data for capital gain. Coined “surveillance capitalism”, companies have been tracking our behavior from what websites we search to when we are online to create targeted advertisements for individual users. Recently, the patterns and personal preferences of users have been monitored and collected to predict an individual’s future behavior. With the further advancement of artificial intelligence, methods like these will become more and more effective and prevalent. As technology advances, surveillance is likely it will follow the pattern of artificial intelligence in becoming more effective and prevalent. From the examples of 1984 and China’s “Social Credit Score,” what once was science fiction has turned into very real possibilities. The only question left is, how far is too far?


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