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Brother in law

Publishing Date : 21 May, 2019

Stuart White
The World in Black-N-White

Owing to the reality television shows that ran for over a decade, most people are familiar with the phrase ‘Big  Brother’ but I wonder how many know why the shows were as named?  If you are one of them, here is the answer. 

In 1948 British author George Orwell wrote a novel entitled ‘1984’ which depicted a future dystopian world where people’s every move and thought were controlled by an all-powerful body known by the deceptively familial term ‘Big Brother’.  Citizens were spied on by cameras and microphones at every turn and everywhere they turned they would see disturbing warning signs with the novel’s catchpharse, ‘Big Brother Is Watching You’. 

The novel was  Orwell’s very prescient vision of the frightening  Cold War   world just around the corner where Churchill’s iron Curtain was about to come down in Germany, splitting it into the free West and the communist-controlled East, along with the oppressive  regime of the communist Soviet Union.  

Easy, then, to see why part of the catchphrase was lifted for a programme featuring a house with cameras in every room to record the activities and conversations of its imprisoned inmates,  a fly-on-the-wall reality show to feed the voracious appetite for viewers of a voyeuristic nature but that was to trivialise Orwell’s insight and intent, much of which fiction became a reality as the 1950s unrolled.

This transition from private citizen to unwitting and unwilling participant in a daily reality show controlled by police and government has been hastened and facilitated by the warp speed leaps in technology over the last quarter of a century.  In Britain, for example, there is scarcely a city, town or village street today which is not covered by 24/7 CCTV coverage, capturing the movement of almost every citizen somewhere, sometime every single day. 

The government and police pro argument is that it keeps those citizens safer by deterring criminal activity and making it easier to capture evidence of wrongdoing whilst the personal privacy anti argument counters that it is an unwarranted intrusion into the lives of  the innocent majority and only a tissue paper’s width away from 1984’s Big Brother’s total control and oppression. The visible CCTV cameras are, however, only the visible tip of the intrusion iceberg.  All of us now have office and home PCs, laptops, tablets, cellphones and other connected devices, each and every one of which are vulnerable to spying and surveillance.

Such spyware is now readily available -  computer software programmes or hardware devices that enables unauthorised users  to secretly monitor and gather information about your computer use.  They can be installed on your computer without your knowledge, and the person installing them doesn’t even need to have physical access to your computer. It can keep track of every keystroke you type, every software application you use, every website you visit, every chat or instant message you send, every document you open, and everything you print.

Some spyware software gives the person monitoring the ability to freeze, shutdown or restart your compute and some versions even allow the abuser to remotely turn on your webcam or make your computer talk. Once it is installed, it can run in stealth mode and is difficult to detect or uninstall.   Without physical access to your computer, users can receive reports showing all of your computer activities, including copies of emails and instant messages sent, websites visited, etc., as well as screenshots of the computer screen every few seconds. This can all occur without the user knowing,, operating in stealth mode without notification or consent, and sending electronic reports to the perpetrator via the Internet

For instance one documentary make installed a ‘Find-my-phone’ app  on a cellphone,  then let someone steal it, after which  the original owner spied on every moment of the thief’s life through the phone’s camera and microphone.  The documentary tracks every move of this person, from brushing their teeth to going to work, to grabbing a bite to eat with their co-worker to intimate moments with a loved one. This is the power of apps that have access to your camera and microphone.

US government whistleblower, Edward Snowden revealed an NSA (National Security Agency) program called Optic Nerves. The operation was a bulk surveillance test programme under which they captured webcam images every five minutes from Yahoo users’ video chats and then stored them for future use.

Hackers can also gain access to your device with extraordinary ease via apps, PDF files, multimedia messages and even emojis.  An application called Metasploit on the ethical hacking platform Kali uses an Adobe Reader 9 (which over 60% of users still use) exploit to open a listener (rootkit) on the user’s computer.  The hacker alters the PDF with the programme, sends the user the malicious file, they open it, and hey presto – they then have total control over their device remotely.

Once a user opens this PDF file, the hacker can then:

Install whatever software/app they like on the user’s device.
Use a keylogger to grab all of their passwords.
Steal all documents from the device.
Take pictures and stream videos from their camera.
Capture past or live audio from the microphone.
Upload incriminating images/documents to their PC, and notify the police.

This background might bring into context the current controversy surrounding the Chinese telecoms giant, Huawei.  The White House today issued an executive order banning  US firms from using telecom equipment from sources the administration deems national security threats.  Though not specifically named, the order is deemed to refer particularly to Huawei,  because of its close links to the Chinese government. 

Cynics might say that’s the US government in effect saying don’t do as we do just do as we say and that may be so but given all the sypware devices available, consider this simple analogy.  If someone were standing outside your bedroom window, staring in through the curtains you would call the police.   Why then when you may be being monitored via your connected devices do you pretend it’s not really happening or it doesn’t matter??

There are some simple precautions you can take.  Firstly, before you download a new app, study what permissions it asks for. Does LinkedIn really require camera access? Does Twitter really require microphone access?   Also always make sure to cover your webcam with tape, and plug out your microphones when you’re not using them.   After all, you never know who’s listening, monitoring and watching -  it may be ‘Big Brother’. 



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