Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Are you being followed?

Last week, a friend of mine stopped at a tyre outlet for a routine tyre-swap on his car. When he returned to his vehicle, he immediately noticed that his iPad was gone from the passenger seat, where he thought he had left it. Unconcerned, and figuring he may have moved it unwittingly and forgotten where he'd put it, he flipped on his iPhone and launched the "Find my iPad" app. The GPS-based programme quickly indicated that his iPad was on the move. My friend jumped into his car, chased his iPad and soon caught up with it, in someone else's car. Can you imagine the thief's surprise when the iPad's owner arrived at his car-window, discovered the iPad that he'd been sitting on and demanded an explanation? He couldn't fathom what had blown his cover.

I've recently noticed a slew of news stories about laptop thieves getting bust by the computer's owners remotely activating their laptop's camera to expose the thief. Either GPS or IP-logon tracking then allow the cops to know who to apprehend and where. 

George Orwell's "Big brother" is coming to life. In 1949, when he wrote the classic, people could conceive of a dominating regime that would spie on its citizens. But, could they have envisaged a world where everyone tracks everyone? Even Orwell could not have imagined the ever-exposed world of reality TV, paparazzi and social networking. Neither did he imagine a world of satellite tracking or a personal digital history. In his day there was no technology that could have recorded billions of people's movements. The sheer manpower needed to implement Thought Police would have, in reality, been prohibitive. 

Logically, a super-snooper society would have had to focus its attention on "people of interest", potential revolutionaries, insurgents, terrorists or criminals. Essentially, the CIA, Mossad or KGB did just that. They honed their skill, technology and personnel on tracking "valuable" targets. Tabloid media focused their time and attention on politicians, celebs, tycoons and socialites. And the ordinary person remained anonymous.

As Thomas Carlyle noted, "The history of the world is but the biography of great men". Or, at least, interesting people.

Not anymore. You no longer need to be someone significant to have your life tracked. Your phone, your car's GPS, online travel plans, Twitter, Facebook, Google searching  and a dozen other technologies ensure that your activities are recorded. Some experts even warn that people may one day want to create a new personal identity to escape their embarrassing online activity as youngsters. That's how it is nowadays. You probably don't even realise it, but just about everything that you do is recorded somewhere in the great digital cloud. It could come back to bite you at any time.

2000 years ago, the Talmudic sages already knew this. Ok, they didn't have Internet, credit card trails or GPS, but they did know that the Great Database In The Heavens records every move each of us makes. It's all stored on a server that never crashes. 

One day, G-d will tap on your window and confront whatever secrets you're sitting on. Make sure your record looks good, or you may be as flummoxed as the fellow who stole my friend's iPad and is still wondering how on earth he traced him.

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