I was wandering through the concrete back streets of old East Berlin last week, riffing with a close friend on the world and the times, waist deep in the surveillance state and the rise of the industrial intelligence complex.
“How far are we from a full blown Orwellian?” I asked my acquaintance. He pulled in his neck, pursed and stared: “I think we’re already well past that point, my friend”.
I wasn’t sure what was more disarming: the fact that he was probably right (or close to it); that I knew it too but simultaneously denied it; or that we were discussing such matters surrounded by the former stronghold of the Stasi—the GDR’s vicious intelligence police—whose psychological harassment and brutal surveillance of its own citizens now seems rather primitive compared to the insidious global reach of today’s powers-that-be.
Was my pal right? Are we living in a ‘1984-ified’ world? Do we even realise?
Orwell’s invocation of an all-seeing, all-knowing Big Brother state—one that controls the thoughts of all who live under it—was an instant smash with the public when it was released 67 years ago. The narrative of Winston Smith and his bid to bust free from the shackles of a draconian surveillance world still has traction. Sales of the novel on Amazon.com increased by nearly 9,000 per cent in 2013, after Edward Snowden blew the lid on today’s big story: the spy programs of the NSA and its international allies.
That tale is even more compelling. We’ve learned much from Snowden: most significantly, that the previously unscrutinised American National Security Agency has been intercepting and bulk collecting citizens’ phone calls electronic data for years—emails, chats, cloud-stored files, Google search histories and more—regardless of any criminal or terrorism connections.
As journalist Joseph Applebaum told Exberliner:
There was never a time in history where this many people could be under surveillance. This is new, and it is not okay.
Governments continue to assert that digital dragnets like these are necessary to fight that seemingly perpetual war against terror, that to “find the needle” they need access to the whole haystack. But civil liberties groups, and many in the general public, have come to view this level and depth of surveillance as a flagrant overreach of power. Politicians have even begun to question the political and legal mechanisms that claim to hold agencies like the NSA accountable. Julian Burnside writes at The Guardian:
The possibility that the movements and conversations of all citizens could be tracked by government agencies cannot be reconciled with accepted social values.
Others might be satiated by the NSA’s strained mantra: “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear”, signposted at the front of its yottabyte (one thousand trillion gigabyte) storage hub in Utah. But as Lewis Beale writes at CNN this dictum makes us all Winston Smith:
There are those who say that if you don’t have anything to hide, you have nothing to be afraid of. But the fact is, when a government agency can monitor everyone’s phone calls, we have all become suspects.
Not just Americans either. Snowden’s documents revealed the international spy infrastructure at play: the “Five Eyes” alliance between the US, Australia, UK, New Zealand and Canada uncomfortably, the world’s most democratic nations—who freely share citizens’ private information.
According to Snowden, Britain’s American-funded Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) is “even worse” than their US counterparts: their program, Tempora has been tapping into masses of phone and internet traffic for years, switching on users’ webcams remotely, capturing and storing visuals (clothed or otherwise). We also learned last week about the GCHQ’s campaign of widespread web propaganda, its Stasi-esque false flag smear operations of deceit and manipulation that have very little to do with a fight against ‘terror’.
“Our journalists now face jail for up to 10 years—or possibly have their citizenship revoked—if they report on programs or operations deemed by the government to be ‘sensitive’”
Australia has been called by Snowden journalist Glenn Greenwald “one of the most aggressive” surveillance nations. Telcos like Telsta and Optus are required by the government to retain our private call data for two years, material that Asio is constantly trawling through without oversight, sharing with overseas agencies as it sees fit.
For many Australians, this was one more casualty in our seismically rearranged domestic free speech landscape in recent years. Our journalists now face jail for up to 10 years—or possibly have their citizenship revoked—if they report on programs or operations deemed by the government to be ‘sensitive’. Meanwhile, the new Border Force Act hopes to hurl crucial whistle-blowers, including those who lift the lid on the pitiful state of our detention centres, into jail as well.
Across the Pacific, it looked as if the US might be trying to quell this invasive reach with the passing of the USA Freedom Act, a legislative response to the Snowden revelations. While the bill softens the NSA’s reach, in reality it’s business as usual for the surveillance state. As John Whitehead writes for the Rutherford Institute:
Just about every branch of the government—from the Postal Service to the Treasury Department and every agency in between—now has its own surveillance sector, authorized to spy on the American people.
What can we say about freedom of speech when the self-confessed freest lands on earth run a shared surveillance substructure that out-does the Stasi? What do we say about the fact that, in the words of The Invisible Committee’s “To Our Friends”:
Secret services, multinationals, and political networks collaborate shamelessly, even beyond a nation-state level that nobody cares about now.
Thanks to the Snowdens of the world, we know for certain—not maybe—that our present communication infrastructure lets groups like the NSA wiretap entire countries and their government leaders; that Facebook is in bed with the state, and that Google is not what is seems. Applebaum again:
Until the architecture is privacy by design, we will have privacy by policy. Privacy by policy will always be violated by people who do not feel that they are constrained by that policy. We have to work to change the way our infrastructure works.
As Sun Tzu once wrote, information is power; this power extends, and is emboldened, by the information one has about others. “To win the war is to control the milieu,” added French Army General Vincent Desportes. Our systems of governance of late seem to be working overtime to do exactly that.
Deep in the rabbit hole, I parted ways with my friend, set course via U-Bahn back home. Staring at my iPhone, I ruminated—knowing, but not fully accepting—that someone in some faceless agency somewhere could effortlessly listen in to my conversations whenever they liked.
The night train weaved over the ghost lines of the old Berlin Wall, as I considered what it might mean in the future that so much of our personal information had become so loose in the digital ether. I pondered the consequences of a world where toy Barbies record our children’s voices, fashion labels sew ‘anti-drone’ and ‘NSA-proof’ accessories; where televisions sets listen in, and drone executions are conducted by algorithm. A world where we pay for goods on smart phones with our irises; where our biometrics—faces, eyes, genes, voices—are recorded and analysed by external computers, as ‘voiceprint’ becomes the new fingerprint, capable of identifying and pinpointing our every move.
Some believe human fallibility will inevitably safeguard us from the sort of dystopia Orwell was obsessed with. Others can’t help but feel we’ve crept into that deeply uncomfortable moment. Sean Fitzpatrick of “Crisis” is one:
Although we are not citizens of Orwell’s world, there is a complacency in our civilization that is akin to Orwellian capitulation. The fears and confusions of a rapidly changing culture and its permeating devices are disorienting and discouraging. Affairs may not be as grisly as they were for Winston Smith, but we may not be far off.
Have we noticed? And do we care?