Academic exhumes Orwell once again

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02/16/2010
Ah, Orwell. Without him, how would people complain about surveillance? Would all of those who complain about and fear "Big Brother" have some other common way of expressing their displeasure, or would there instead be myriad ways of describing their fears and reticence? I like to think the latter. Thus, I think we're being deprived of all kinds of silly metaphors and hyperbole. This is a crime for which Orwell should posthumously pay in some way. Instead of being regaled with fears of the "omni-eye," or MICAW (short for "the military industrial complex is always watching), or "the camera conundrum," or "the digital devil," or possibly even something lucid like, "I fear that we're viewing and recording people's actions with there being a good policy for who gets to watch, how long something is retained for, or how that footage can be used" (ha! like that would ever come out of someone's mouth!), or some other fun stuff, it's just Orwell and Big Brother, every time. Aren't these people cognizant of the cliches they're espousing? Most of them are academics. Don't their jobs sort of demand they come up with new ideas? Perhaps not. Here's a press release (I'm sure it's on the web elsewhere, but the link I have is password protected, so I won't bother supplying it) for a talk being given at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design:
MINNEAPOLIS, Feb. 12 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- Artist Hasan Elahi will discuss "Tracking Transience: The Orwell Project," on February 18 at 5:30 p.m. in Auditorium 150 at MCAD. Joining him for a dialog is computer security specialist and bestselling author Bruce Schneier. This event is free and open to the public.
Wait. An academic project based on surveillance? You should totally call that the "Orwell Project," dude. Cuz, like, he was all over surveillance from the way back! It'd be perfect!
Hasan Elahi developed "Tracking Transience: The Orwell Project" after the Department of Homeland Security erroneously detained him at an airport. Though subsequent interviews with the FBI cleared him, Elahi, a Bangladesh-born United States citizen, decided to employ the technology of surveillance to give him a constant alibi. The result is a Web-based system that uses GPS data, Google maps, and photographic evidence, including images of airports and food receipts, to provide an up-to-the-minute account of Elahi's whereabouts.
Actually, I think the use of surveillance equipment and GPS to provide a constant alibi is kind of funny, and I hope that this is at least a little tongue in cheek, and, if so, I'd probably enjoy this talk, but this gets at another little peeve of mine: Yes, federal security agents are fallible and make mistakes. Holy crap, can you believe it!?! What is this world coming to when we can't even count on human beings to be completely perfect in their decision making and policy application?!? It's insanity! I mean, seriously. Yes, DHS screwed up and detained him at the airport. I have no idea how bad this experience was. Maybe they put him in the clink for a bit. Maybe they roughed him up a bit. (I'm thinking not, though, since that would seem like a lawsuit in waiting and we'd have probably heard about it before now, but maybe so. Hard to say.) But mistakes are going to happen. Would people rather the security guys err on the side of letting people they think are sketchy just waltz on by for fear of detaining the wrong person, and thereby allow an actually sketchy person to board a plane and blow a couple hundred people up? That's the error that people would prefer? As long as the DHS and FBI apologized profusely and truly made an honest mistake, what else is there for them to do? Maybe make a reimbursement for the time lost? That seems fair. I fully support the effort to improve security and be more efficient with our resources and use technology and policy to target the bad guys while ignoring the good guys, but sometimes these "critics" of security just seem to vengeful naysayers who've been wronged in some way and thus feel the need to get back at the institution that wronged them. I understand the impulse, but why others, including an academic institution, for example, would help to broadcast that righteous indignation, I'm not sure. Just because someone got screwed doesn't mean that person is the expert on making sure other people don't get screwed.