Our commonly held fears about Big Brother, brought into focus by the government's drive for a national identity card, are genuine and deserving of informed debate, but they may not be a useful guide to rational discussion and planning. I'm not sure that worries about government surveillance should be keeping privacy campaigners awake at night.
Any conversation about ID cards or road-use charging soon incorporates Big Brother. Yet the implicit mental model of Big Brother is curiously old-fashioned because it is Orwell's vision that has become so dominant. This vision is rooted in a post-war perspective on the future, where technology is used to create giant databases so the government can exercise centralised control of society.
However, if technology continues to evolve along current lines, then Big Brother will end up being far more powerful than Orwell envisaged (in the sense that we will have far less individual privacy). In a world of matchbox-sized MPeg4 camcorders and cameraphones, of always-on broadband and RFID, your next-door neighbours will be the nemesis of privacy.
Thus it is interesting to note the police appeal for photos, video and cameraphone media in the wake of the terrorist outrage. It could be these, rather than CCTV, that contain the key clue to the identity of the bombers: confirmation that Big Brother is "us", not "them".
A terrific word for all of this, invented by Steve Mann, a professor at the University of Toronto, is "sousveillance". The reason sousveillance is such a concern is that it is not under control and there are no transparently obvious ways it could be brought under control.
If a major retailer were to abuse customers' privacy, customers could at least look to a watchdog to do something about it. If a government department does something silly with your personal data, I imagine there is an ombudsman to whom you could complain. But if someone with a cameraphone snaps you going to a sensitive business meeting and then emails it to a competitor, it is hard to imagine what could done about it.
Sadly, human nature means that the temptation to do this sort of thing will be overwhelming. If you could put a Trojan horse on your neighbour's TV or in your daughter's mobile or your manager's PC, you would. You don't have to be a blackmailer or a tabloid journalist to fancy a quick peek at a celebrity's medical records or a politician's itemised phone bill.
This is hardly a far-future speculation. It is already going on, because the state of PC and internet security is so poor that it is easy to do (Sophos say that 50% of unprotected Windows machines connected to the internet are infested within 12 minutes).
Look at the scandal emerging in Israel, where a number of businesses - including a TV company, mobile phone operator and car importer - apparently used a Trojan horse to spy on rivals. Police found file servers containing thousands of stolen documents.
The internet democratises and decentralises Big Brother, just as it democratises and decentralises everything else.
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