CBC Digital Archives

Birth of Big Brother

You are being watched. From street corners and roadsides, bank machines and satellites, video cameras record our every move. For police forces, photo radar, street surveillance, cruiser cams and tiny cameras have become efficient crime-fighting tools, gathering irrefutable proof of criminal activity and deterring would-be lawbreakers. For others, video surveillance is an uncomfortable erosion of civil liberties, the unblinking eyes of Big Brother.

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Our modern notion of a need to protect our privacy dates back to the invention of the photographic camera. From there: film and video cameras, prying telephoto lenses, hidden cameras and spy satellites. As we hear in this Ideas clip -- appropriately, from the year 1984 -- New York City police commissioner Benjamin Ward welcomes the camera's evolution as a boon to public safety. But Privacy Journal publisher Robert Ellis Smith worries about the psychological impact of knowing that you are always being watched. 
• The first motion picture film cameras were developed in the late 1800s. They include devices dubbed the "wheel of life," the "zoopraxiscope," the "cinematographe" and the "vitascope."
• The first electronic television cameras were devised in the 1920s. In the 1950s magnetic tape systems were invented to record the video from television cameras, and throughout the 1960s video recording technology improved and cameras got smaller, more portable and less expensive.

• Samuel Warren and Louis D. Brandeis' December 1890 Harvard Law Review article, The Right to Privacy, is regarded as the starting point of modern privacy law.
• "That the individual shall have full protection in person and in property is a principle as old as the common law," it began. "Recent inventions and business methods call attention to the next step which must be taken for the protection of the person, and for securing... the right 'to be let alone.'"

• "Instantaneous photographs and newspaper enterprise have invaded the sacred precincts of private and domestic life," the authors wrote, "and numerous mechanical devices threaten to make good the prediction that 'what is whispered in the closet shall be proclaimed from the house-tops.'" They were mostly concerned not with state surveillance but with "the unauthorized circulation of portraits of private persons" and "and the evil of the invasion of privacy by the newspapers."

• George Orwell's novel 1984 is perhaps the most enduring vision of life under constant surveillance by police and state. The novel, published in 1948, is a dark future vision of a totalitarian society led by the all-pervasive Big Brother. Big Brother is always watching, and his police censor behaviour and thinking itself. Orwell claimed his intention was "to alter other people's idea of the kind of society they should strive after."

• "There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment," Orwell wrote in 1984. "It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live -- did live, from habit that became instinct -- in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and except in darkness, every movement scrutinised."

• In New York in 2004 there were some 10,000 cameras peering down on public streets from lampposts and buildings; a threefold increase in the previous six years. Cameras resembling street lamps overlook Times Square. They can swivel 360 degrees and purportedly can zoom in close enough to read a Broadway ticket in a scalper's hand.
Medium: Radio
Program: IDEAS
Broadcast Date: Oct. 22, 1984
Guest(s): Robert Ellis Smith, Benjamin Ward
Reporter: Tom Keenan
Duration: 5:19

Last updated: June 12, 2013

Page consulted on December 16, 2014

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