Big Brother Version 2.0 On Horizon

For all the talk during recent weeks about privacy and the internet, I doubt all but a few people really understand how much Big Brother and his cousin, Big Brother Inc., know about us.

George Orwell’s book “1984” and the film based on it scared a lot of people for decades after the novel was published in 1949.

That may have been because humankind had just seen what an evil dictator could do with power (though the horrors wrought by Hitler’s competitor, Stalin, were still being covered up). Orwell’s genius was to grant his villains access to technology that in 1949 was considered advanced.

Thus were born the thought police and a Big Brother who was always watching.

But Orwell’s thought police could only monitor what we said.

Now, Big Brother and BB Inc. really can look into our minds. They know what products we’re interested in buying and what they might be able to convince us we need. Politicians can predict how we’re likely to vote.

In some ways, they know more about us than we do about ourselves — or at least, what we can recall about our lives.

A few weeks ago, I went to a government website. To make full use, I had to verify my identity. A series of questions, the answers to which I would know, was asked.

I was asked which of four names was familiar to me. None, at first glance. Then I picked the name of a college administrator to whom I had talked eight or nine times about a decade ago.

That happened to be the correct answer.

But how did the feds know that? I haven’t seen the person or communicated with her in years. I’m not certain I ever exchanged emails with her, though it’s possible. How did Uncle Sam know?

Because of the enormous database of information about us — just about all of us — that exists, combined with incredible computing power to sort it all out. Somewhere in that database, my name and the educator’s are found on the same line. It may because we exchanged one or two emails or phone calls and share some other things in common (West Virginia University’s old School of Journalism in this case).

Another set of questions I had to answer to verify my identity asked me to pick one of a serious of addresses that was familiar to me. It took a bit of head scratching, but I got the right one — a place where I lived more than a quarter-century ago.

So Big Brother and his corporate cousin know more about us than even some members of our families do. Look at it this way: It is likely that marketing experts using digital technology — and information obtained not just through Facebook but through much of what we do online — are better than our spouses at picking the perfect Christmas gift for us.

So the technology of watching us has gone beyond anything Orwell’s Big Brother could have imagined.

Not to worry, we’re assured. Social media and other collectors of personal data would never, ever misuse it, they tell us.


I’ve forgotten the title of a movie I saw years ago, in which the best line was something like this:

“The greatest feat the Devil ever achieved was convincing humans he didn’t exist.”

Myer can be reached at: