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The all-seeing eye

HAVING recently finished rereading The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and watching the DVD of the excellent film version by Peter Jackson, I got to mulling over the idea of an all-seeing eye.

Sauron’s eye (© MMVII New Line
Productions, Inc. Source:

In the book, and in the movie, it is the personification of the Dark Lord Sauron, represented by a lidless eye, wreathed in flames, that sees far and wide. Ever it searches the land for its enemies — the good folk of Middle Earth — and the Ring of Power that Sauron holds so dear.

Around the time that JRR Tolkien was labouring with his masterpiece, another British author, Eric Arthur Blair, better known as George Orwell, published his dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.

This seminal work, which describes life under a totalitarian regime, is famous for its many terms and concepts. Perhaps the most famous is “Big Brother”, the idea of an all-pervasive surveillance system that puts state security above personal privacy.

Orwell’s work, like Aldous Huxley‘s Brave New World, is a cautionary tale about society ceding its rights and freedoms for what is perceived to be the greater good. But this is perverted by those in power to perpetuate their rule in any way possible.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Big Brother monitors every aspect of the people’s lives through the use of telescreens (two-way televisions) that allow the dreaded Thought Police to view behaviour both in public spaces and within the home. Indeed, the slogan Big Brother is Watching You! is a scary but accurate reflection of the times.

Modern day Big Brother

Alan Moore (© Fimb / Flickr)
Lest we dismiss Nineteen Eighty-Four and books of its ilk — such as Alan Moore’s terrific V for Vendetta — as nothing more than fantasy, modern day equivalents of Big Brother abound.

The popular reality series Big Brother dumps a dozen contestants into a house in an isolated area and monitors — via television cameras and microphones — every part of their behaviour.  The housemates are not allowed any contact with the outside world, compete for cash prizes and try to avoid eviction.

Sure, that’s reality TV for you, but it’s not a reflection of real life, or is it? The idea that everything you do is being monitored sounds creepy, but it’s the reality in some parts of the world.

Britain is officially the most watched country in the world. Brits are monitored by more than four million CCTV (closed circuit television) cameras — one for every 14 citizens. Apparently, the Home Office spends approximately 78% of its crime prevention budget on CCTVs — a staggering £300 million a year.

The technology has grown by leaps and bounds — the CCTVs use a database to ID individual faces in a crowd as a form of profiling. The implications to security and personal freedom are enormous.

But CCTVs are not the only way that governments keep an eye on their citizens. Thanks to technological innovations, it is now easier than before to spy on people.

There’s a website called Big Brother that compiles a whole string of articles that document the various ways we — citizens of the world — are being spied on.

Peek-a-boo, someone’s watching you
(© Mateusz Stachowski /

Some are well known, such as phone tapping. A journalist from a neighbouring country, whom I met at a conference, told me that all media members in her country were subject to such surveillance. Thinking this was all just a bit too paranoid for my taste, I dismissed it. But then, for a period of several months during the Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad administration, my housemates and I had the distinct feeling that our house phone was indeed tampered with.

This feeling of Big Brother watching was further enforced by the fact that an unmarked car was parked outside our home. Now, I have no way of knowing whether the surveillance was for real or imagined. Neither do I have any clear idea as to why. All I know is what I saw and heard.

The “surveillance” stopped as abruptly as it began, but I began to be very wary about what was said over the phone — be it a landline or mobile phone. This wariness has also translated to internet use. For most of us, using email and visiting social networking sites are part and parcel of our daily lives. But everything you do on the internet can be — and is — monitored.

Watch this rather disturbing video about how US telecommunications giant AT&T helped to facilitate government spying on all Internet, phone and email traffic to and from the US. 

Internet spies

The technology to allow your Internet Service Provider (ISP) to track the sites you browse is already in place, though it has been touted more as a means of tailoring adverts to your personal preference. British Internet service providers, including TalkTalk, BT and Virgin, are considering adopting tracking software from a company called Phorm.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee (© Enrique Dans / Flickr)
Though they insist they will not store any information that could identify a person, the very thought that we are being monitored as we surf is scary. The inventor of the internet, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, has come out strongly against such use of technology, but it seems likely that money talk will prevail.

Another example of monitoring behaviour on the internet is the use of search engines such as Google. As it cements its position as top dog in the internet search world, Google has managed to accumulate an astounding amount of information about its users, for use as marketing tools and possibly, surveillance. 

In fact, a website called Google Watch gave nine very good reasons why it nominated the company for the Big Brother award in 2003. On the internet, Big Brother i.e. Google truly is watching your every move. See a video here.

How prevalent is government snooping in Malaysia? Well, according to the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission, all SMSes are monitored and those that are of a seditious, threatening, obscene or fraudulent nature are traced to the original senders, some of whom have been prosecuted here.

The same holds true of messages posted on websites and forums, as well as emails. We may not yet have blanket cover of CCTVs to keep an electronic eye on us like in Britain, but that doesn’t seem too far down the pipeline. The KL mayor recently announced plans to increase the number of CCTVs “to check crime and safeguard public property”.

We already have a ministry in charge of propaganda — the Ministry of Information, Communications and Culture — and our own brand of thought police who brandish the Sedition Act with ever greater vigour. This is how it starts — but how will it end?

N Shashi Kala dislikes using most modern forms of communication and wishes we could go back to smoke signals.

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6 Responses to “The all-seeing eye”

  1. Dhanen Mahes says:

    Sure, smoke signals are great – but Smoking Kills.

  2. Sonia says:

    On this note, one of the scariest campaigns I’ve seen in recent years was one of the mobile phone operators allowed you to track other people’s mobile phones via GPS. There was no indication in the ad campaign of any limitations or permissions required, or that the owner of the phone would be notified.

    It isn’t just the State that can monitor you.

  3. N Shashi Kala says:

    There is a way of triangulating radio signals so as to track down a mobile phone user’s location. It has been used before, most notably in the Bentong Kali case. There’s also sophisticated software to pick out certain key words or phrases uttered over the phone – but not sure if it is in use here.

  4. Ming says:

    You know, I wish the police would use all this “monitoring” technology to catch bad criminals who rape and murder instead of wasting time tracking sms senders and reading through our email. If we have to put up with our government spying on us, make sure we get some benefit okay.

  5. Aki says:

    Well, I really hope that they would use the technology of CCTV wisely, not spying on EVERYONE’s privates.

  6. Daniel C says:

    Do check out the All Seeing Eye in the US’s Information Awareness Office

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