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Forget 1984, Think 2015

Security cameraYou’re probably aware that as you drive through the city certain cameras, often mounted overhead at cross streets, record your car’s plate number and, in many instances, they record your face as well. And as you or park in a parking garage or enter a shop, security cameras continue to photograph you. And maybe you’re aware that if you walk with your cell phone on, your location is being pinpointed to within fifteen feet.

Maybe, like most people, you do feel a little uncomfortable about being kept under watch, but you shrug it off because you’re just one individual in a city of thousands or millions and they can’t keep track of every single one of us all the time. I mean, sure, they have the technology to listen to our phone conversations and the technology to photograph us as we move around, but how can they store that ocean of information? Besides, the cost of storing so much data would break the bank.

And you’re right. At least for three more years. But you do remember George Orwell’s 1984 and Big Brother. Back in 1984, it cost about $85,000 to store a gigabyte of data. Today it costs about five cents. That means it costs about 17 cents to store all the phone calls made by an individual over the course of a year. But the cost of storage is falling and by 2015 it will cost under 2 cents.

Cameras produce photos and photos have lots of pixels and that means a security camera generates a mountain of data. On the other hand, your phone, GPS and Wi-Fi connection give away your location but that information requires comparatively few ones and zeros. The data identifying the location of each of a million people every five minutes, 24 hours a day for a year, can be stored in 1,000 gigabytes. That would cost around $50 today.

It costs more to store all those pixels from all those cameras, but governments can afford it. In China,  a government “safety” project will use around 500,000 video cameras to keep watch in the city of Chongqing which has a population of 12 million — that’s one video camera for every 24 people.  Right now, it’s expensive to store that much high-quality video and they’ll have to use lower quality images. But in a few years, say by 2020, they’ll be able to store a year’s worth of high-quality video movies of every one of those 12 million people for about 25 cents per person.

These numbers come from a very interesting report produced by John Villasenor, a nonresident senior fellow in Governance Studies and in the Center for Technology Innovation at Brookings. He is also professor of electrical engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles. You may want to read the full report ; you’ll find it well documented. Professor Villasenor’s report is phrased in terms of how much it would cost a repressive regime, such as that in Iran, to keep a close watch on each of its citizens. Fortunately, we live in an open society where such issues as government surveillance and individual privacy are vigorously debated. Or, maybe we should say, ought to be vigorously debated.

More Notes


Tim Carmody, in his excellent piece, "How Haiti Became Poor", notes that President Trump's racist policies and vulgar language have sullied the word "shithole" which used to be one of the all-time great swear words. He's right. It's another terrible power this careless President wields.