Tag Archives: George Orwell

Big Brother is watching you

It’s quite funny looking back at the olden days when 1984 was still a future date on the calendar. 1984 was published in 1949, the year before I was born (how about that?). I read the book at school, I think, and I remember the discussion when THAT year finally arrived. Well, that year passed by with barely a whimper. Computers were still toys for playing games, or bloody great edifices used by banks and the Department of Defence. A wall still split Berlin. People still had to read paper books and the Post Office delivered letters. The IBM PC was only just beginning to make its bid for the hearts and minds of home users – even with the truly awful IBM XT with its 4-colour, lousy resolution screen and its measly 360kb floppy drive. And the Internet was science fiction.

Maybe George Orwell’s conceptions about the future didn’t quite fit the real 1984 – but I think the world has caught up in the last decade or so, indeed, leaving his imagination in its wake as it rushed past.

Recently I (and many others) have struggled with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) (EU) 2016/679, where all web sites which receive visits from EU residents must disclose how they use information they collect about people. Lately there have been calls for rules about how facial recognition software is used. It’s all very well for getting through immigration at the airport but the software is playing a much greater role in life in places like China. It’s always sold to the general public as a way of catching criminals and the like, but the fact is the idea of ‘privacy’ is a fast-diminishing concept.

To some extent people accept that there’s a trade-off between privacy and convenience. CCTV in public places helps to make us safer. If Google knows where we are, it can find restaurants for us or recommend a route to a museum. If a facial recognition camera detects a murderer in a crowd at a football match, that’s great. But although the algorithms are getting better, the matches are not always correct, which might be a bit sad for that unfortunate individual in a place like China. Apart from that, everybody’s face is scanned. Big Brother will know (should he care) who went to that football match, even which colour scarf he/she was wearing.

Australia is not a police state, but the Government is collecting more and more information about us. It already has our tax records and if we receive any form of Government subsidy, such as pensions, education support, or unemployment benefits, we have a record with that amorphous octopus, Centrelink. And we also have a Medicare card, which gives us access to subsidised prescription medicines via the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, and bulk billing for a few medical services.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and the Government’s latest idea is just such a one.

I can imagine the conversation. “I’ve got a great idea. Why don’t we collect everybody’s health records and store them so that any doctor can look them up? Let’s say you live in Brisbane and you’re on holiday in Melbourne and get sick. You go to a doctor and that doctor can look up the records to find out what medication you’re on, what you’re allergic to…”

Sounds great, doesn’t it?

What could go wrong? Er… let’s see. What if an insurance fund could find out you had an existing condition? What if you had an embarrassing disease you didn’t want the world to know about? (AIDS, for instance) What if the information held about you was just plain wrong? (Here’s an example) But that wouldn’t happen, and of course we can trust the bureaucrats to keep our data safe and private. Here’s what the department itself has to say about these issues.

Remember that locked filing cabinet somebody bought at a secondhand shop? It turned out to be full of recent, confidential cabinet papers. Oops. Here’s the story.

According to the GDPR rules people must opt in to any scheme collecting private data. But this is Australia. The new MyHealth record is going to be created for you whether you want it or not, administered under the ubiquitous MyGov umbrella. They’ve been very quiet about that, and even quieter about being able to opt out. Thanks to Janet Albrechtsen, a respected journalist (a real one) with The Australian for writing an article about this. (No link because it’s a subscription paper.) The comments it attracted were interesting. Quite a few doctors elected to opt out of the scheme because of fears about accuracy as well as privacy.

Based on several comments and concerns, I’ve opted out. You can opt out of the scheme until 15 October 2018. Follow this link to find out how.

It seems to me 1984 was a long time coming – but it’s even bleaker than Orwell envisaged.