‘Big Brother is watching you.’ With these words, George Orwell created one of the most oft-quoted phrases in the world today. Within the context of the novel 1984, complete surveillance of the nation’s citizens is the way of mass control and oppression.

Liberal minded people often cite the rejoinder, ‘If you’ve got nothing to hide, what’s wrong with surveillance?’ Well, for one thing, if your movements and routine are tracked daily then you can be wide open to theft. Surely it could never be used thus?

Its connotations now encompass the expansion of CCTV monitoring on high streets, the use of agencies like supermarkets and banks who track your every expenditure through to mobile phones whose GPS services allow the owner to be tracked anywhere, anytime.

As a country, we accept these as a paranoid downside of otherwise beneficial services which can unfortunately be misused. It’s a fine line between deterring crime and the feeling of surveillance overdose that is trodden on a daily basis.

Recent news stories about phone hacking show how easy it is for our private conversations and messages can be taken without our permission and also highlight the vulnerability of our everyday life in the hands of large organisations.

So which governments and agencies are keeping tabs on us and is it always as harmless as they assert?


According to a Bloomberg report in August 2011, the authoritarian regime of Bahrain used the Nokia-Siemens network and surveillance software to intercept messages and collate information on human rights activists. What followed was the arrest and torture of these individual. All in the name of maintaining discipline you understand.


The Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, carried a story of how the Libyan government had used French, American and South African monitoring equipment to oppress Libyan dissidents before and during the uprising this year.

Inside a government building in Tripoli, a surveillance room was found where English language training manuals, intercepted emails and transcripts of private phone calls. According to the newspaper, ‘Libya went on a surveillance-gear shopping spree after the international community lifted trade sanctions.

For global makers of everything from snooping technology to passenger jets and oil equipment, ending the trade sanctions transformed [Col. Gaddafi’s] regime from pariah state to coveted client.’


More evidence of the use of European and US built surveillance was found in Syria. So-called ‘hactivists’ at Reflets have identified Bluecoat Technologies as the source of technology that has allowed the Syrian regime to employ deep packet inspection which allows the government to monitor internet traffic and then decide on a routing policy: to read or block the communications.


Reporters Without Borders alleges that Canadian web hosting company Netfirms Inc supplied sensitive information about a US citizen of Thai origin that resulted in his arrest upon entering Thailand.

The organisation is urging web users to be more alert to what they see and say over the Internet. Bear in mind that aside from email interception, Skype phone calls can be recorded and the private chat on social media sites is also open to lifting.


Even the most naive reader wouldn’t balk at the unsurprising news that the States has also been involved in covert listening of its citizens.USA Today reported in 2006 that major telephone companies (Verizon, AT&T and BellSouth) were illegally assisting the National Security Agency in monitoring the records of Americans and storing them in a ‘NSA Call Database’. The NSA states that it wasn’t listening in to the calls but using the data to analyze calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity.


Six years ago the Surveillance Studies Network concluded that by the end of that year the UK was ‘the most surveilled country’ in the West. This was in part due to the explosion in the number of CCTV cameras that began springing up all over the country.A YouGov poll conducted at the end of 2006 revealed that 79% of respondents felt they lived in a ‘surveillance society’ but only 51% believed that it was a bad thing. People questioned felt that the benefits of crime prevention and reducing the risk of terror attacks outweighed any perceived infringement-of-liberty concerns. 


Thanks to the upfront nature of India’s 2008 Information Technology Act, the government doesn’t really need to utilise covert surveillance. It’s Section 69 that causes concern in certain quarters.

“Section 69 empowers the Central Government/State Government/ its authorized agency to intercept, monitor or decrypt any information generated, transmitted, received or stored in any computer resource if it is necessary or expedient so to do in the interest of the sovereignty or integrity of India, defence of India, security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognizable offence or for investigation of any offence.”

Well, that’s fairly comprehensive. Couple that with the‘National Intelligence Grid’, completed around May of this year, a database compiling all their records, fingerprints, iris scans and GPS home locations and you have the recipe for quite an oppressive atmosphere.


India wasn’t the only country in 2008 to get a warrantless wiretapping of any communications law. This applied to any incoming and outgoing traffic across the border rather than internal communications. Sweden was the first nation to disclose publicly it has such a surveillance programme.

Undoubtedly there are other countries with similar programmes but so far they’re keeping eerily quiet. Sweden’s law has an impact on their Nordic neighbours of Norway and Finland; both countries have to route their traffic through the Swedish network.


With the impending global events of the 2014 FIFA Football World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games, it’s little wonder that an IMS Research report found that Brazil is now the largest growing market in Latin America for surveillance equipment.

The emergence of Brazil onto the world stage as host to these prestigious events has fuelled demand for surveillance hardware among shopkeepers, hoteliers and households too.

Aside from these globally important sporting spectacles, Brazil has already implemented several State surveillance procedures. These include the mandatory registering of SIM cards of pre-pay mobile phones and the requirement of Internet cafes to record user details; both methods to prevent anonymous traffic.


Perhaps the most amazing tale of mass surveillance and tracking began in Hong Kong from July 2007. Over 20,000 cars and 10,000 lorries and buses to date have been fitted with ‘inspection and quarantine’ cards: a sophisticated bugging and tracking device that allows the government to keep tabs on the vehicle and its occupants.

The Chinese government has published details of how it used data gathered from the devices to break a smuggling ring. An anti-establishment tabloid, the ‘Apple Daily’, is not so sure if this good-news story is all it’s cracked up to be.

Hong Kong has long been viewed with suspicion by the Chinese and they cite concerns that this is just a way of infiltrating the country. Representatives from the Shenzhen Bureau of Quarantine and Investigation have denied all allegations of citizen spying. The cards are not much bigger than a mobile phone and have a range of 20km.

Oddly, for Westerners who seem overly paranoid about a ‘surveillance society’ developing, we are curiously content to lead the world in creating the best surveillance technology available. Of course we condemn its use in the ‘wrong hands’ but are more than complicit in its proliferation.

Back in the day, it was Bill Gates who set out his intention to get a computer in every house. This is fast becoming a reality. Now that the majority of these devices also feature webcams which hackers (government-based or not) can activate remotely it seems that ordinary citizens have actually invited Big Brother into their homes…