Big Brother Won and We Loved It

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The deployment of technology and media to successfully capture the Brothers Tsarnaev remains a subplot in the incredible Boston Marathon bombing manhunt.

Closed circuit television, triangulating cell phone signals, rapid identification, calls to the public for help through mass media, and civic reporting (including family members) used to hunt men in the streets is the stuff of dystopian science fiction. Really, it’s the Orwellian nightmare of Big Brother realized.

The public loved it. Fears allayed, justice to be served, lives resumed.

Of course, this wasn’t the downfall of some flawed anti-hero. The brothers were murderous self proclaimed jihadists terrorizing Boston with plans to go further.

In the wake of Boston’s technological dragnet, police officials cry for more street level surveillance. And the American Civil Liberties Union and other privacy advocates are fighting a tough battle to ward off Big Brother intrusions.

Ben Franklin said, “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

Though Ben may be right, in the 21st century we value comfort over common sense, and the public prefers feeling good more than hard work. Why would we endanger ourselves in the face of terrorist threats when we can surrender some public privacy to achieve safety?

We walk around giving our lives away to our phones already, sending minute insignificant data points off to the data farms to be mined. Why not our public streets?

Truthfully, I don’t think privacy advocates stand a chance on this one. We’ve seen time in and time out that people don’t care about privacy until they are exploited, from credit cards to Facebook. And then they have their moment of uproar, and go back to surrendering their data to the machine.

Providing safety in the face of terror, in Big Brother we trust. What do you think?



  • I think your new book should be entitled, Now Privacy is Gone. Because it is. Whether we like it or not. Interestingly enough, the advocates on all sides of this issue span liberals, conservatives, and libertarians.

    • LOL, you’re right, we’re just giving it away wholesale! I think it’ll be a long while before I take a turn at a business book again. Feel like I owe it to myself to take a break.

  • Thanks for the ping, Geoff. I’m honored!

    I got very queasy that Friday when Boston was on lock-down. I wasn’t as worried about “our” privacy, but as people tweeted out information from police scanners, I got an uneasy feeling that maybe democracy can go too far. Maybe people can get too much power in their hands. People tried to convince me that the scanner information only let out info that was ok for the public to hear, and maybe that’s true, but still…it made me very queasy. That was one heck of a day for the real world and the online world.

    • We’ve only begun to see the ripples of outcomes from this one. It’s interesting to observe!

  • Great piece Geoff. As you alluded to within the post, people have been actively, albeit gradually, giving up their privacy through constant connectedness via mobile. Add that to the positive results cities like Philadelphia and now Boston have seen with street-level surveillance, and the writing is on the wall. People have seen the benefits of surveillance, and indeed, negative events go away just as quickly as they came. In terms of future implementation and management, it’s a long-term ethical quandary if I’ve ever seen one…

    • Yes, it is. I’m just wondering if we’ll debate that quandry seriously!

      I am glad you made it though the event alright, Cousin. For those of you who don’t know the younger Tsarnaev was arrested just one block away from Andrew’s house.

  • I must admit that I thought the chase scene from Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury as citizens stood at their doorways looking for Montag to pass by. as I watched the drama in Boston unfold. The question is: Does privacy equate with freedom? I think that the answer is too complex for a brief comment. I must consider it for an essay of my own.

  • I am not convinced it’s a black and white issue. Under certain circumstances, e.g. the Boston bombings, cameras and social media played invaluable roles, as did the police lockdown (which btw, I do not consider Martial law but that’s an entirely different discussion). Under others, 911 for example, cameras would not have helped at all because the perpetrators died in the act. Cameras are prevalent – just look at DC and MD, for example – and there is no question in my mind that they will likely become even more so. But I still believe that lines can be crossed and that too much leverage creates the type of society that many of us fear. When we share things are social, it’s a conscious choice. When cameras take photos of us at an intersection, not so much.

    • Ah, good points here. A question back to you… How many people share consciously knowing that their data will be used to market to them, and perhaps stored for intelligence purposes later? One aspect I am fascinated with is Tsarnaev’s deleting his instagram account, and if they can find records. If they do, I think that points to this issue even further. All very murky.

  • Forget Big Brother. Little Brother is coming.

    We won’t stand for the government spying on us, but what’s the end result of subscribing to a mainstream media and political machine built almost entirely around pointing fingers and blame-placing?

    Big Brother doesn’t need to watch us. We’re slowly being conditioned to adopt polarized, bi-partisan self-images. Those who are different (and not millionaires) are guilty until proven innocent.

    Activism is being reduced to finger-pointing and petition-signing.

    Turn on, tune, in, drop out. It’s the only way to really win anymore.

  • “more street level surveillance” Creepy, makes me think of the movie V for Vendata! Street surveillance is also one of the main methods the Gov. of Iran keeps tap on people. Creepy, not for me thank you, even in the name of safety!

  • it’s so weird you quoted Ben Franklin. well, maybe it’s not weird because it’s fitting for this post. But I mentioned that quote to my husband and a few close friends when the Boston situation was happening. (are you in my brain?)

    Many people I talk to echo the sentiment: “of course we want cameras…everywhere!” This scares me. Do people not comprehend the potential for misuse? Or how it can be used against us in the future for other, unintended purposes? I don’t think this is being paranoid (well, maybe a little?)…this is reality.

    What do we do about it? Do we watch the lack of privacy unfold before our eyes? Will taking a stand do anything? Or are we already way too far down the rabbit hole?

  • Willingly giving up life to the phone is more pertinent. That comes with a loss of privacy I think is silly.

  • We’ll slowly give it up, privacy. Sometimes big leaps are made (9/11, London, now Boston) to advance the surveillance society. And if we’re scared enough, we’ll let it happen.

    Surveillance and registration is not a problem. They can have my fingerprints, DNA and retina scan, I don’t care.., in principle… If I’d trust them enough (which I don’t).

    But it can (and probably will) be used against you at some moment in time.

    It can be insurance companies who raise your claim because you eat to much fast food. Or the profiling can be used against you much seriously.

    In WWII, the reason why Jews could be rounded up so efficiently in Holland is because of efficient registration by the government (and their co-operation).
    Also, the camera’s at the borders (on the highways) monitor for “criminals”. But the tax man realized they could also be used for tax evaders. Something that the camera’s where not supposed to be used for, but hey.., we’ll just change that bill and be done with it.

    My point is, if the right (or very wrong) maniac gets his hands on this data, this infrastructure, it can be very dangerous.

    And I truly believe that by the time we realize what’s happening, we’re already to late and it’s already mandatory for every child to be chipped when it reaches the age of two.., you know.., just in case it gets kidnapped.

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