John Whitehead's Commentary
Orwell Revisited: Privacy in the Age of Surveillance
“You had to live—did live, from habit that became instinct—in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.”—George Orwell, 1984
There’s a reason George Orwell’s 1984 is a predominant theme in my new book A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State (available now on Amazon.com and in stores on June 25). It’s the same reason Orwell’s dystopian thriller about a futuristic surveillance society has skyrocketed to the top of book charts in the wake of recent revelations by former CIA employee and National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden that the nefarious spy agency is collecting the telephone records of millions of Verizon customers, with the complete blessing of the Obama administration.
“To the future or to the past, to a time when thought is free, when men are different from one another and do not live alone— to a time when truth exists and what is done cannot be undone: From the age of uniformity, from the age of solitude, from the age of Big Brother, from the age of doublethink — greetings! ” ― George Orwell
Orwell understood what many Americans, caught up in their partisan flag-waving, are still struggling to come to terms with: that there is no such thing as a government organized for the good of the people—even the best intentions among those in government inevitably give way to the desire to maintain power and control at all costs. As Orwell explains:
The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from the oligarchies of the past in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just around the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now you begin to understand me.
The fact that the U.S. government now has at its disposal a technological arsenal so sophisticated and invasive as to render any constitutional protections null and void, and these technologies are being used by the government to invade the privacy of the American people should not come as a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention over the past decade.
Spearheaded by the NSA, which has shown itself to care little for constitutional limits or privacy, the “security/industrial complex”—a marriage of government, military and corporate interests aimed at keeping Americans under constant surveillance—has come to dominate our government and our lives. At three times the size of the CIA, constituting one third of the intelligence budget and with its own global spy network to boot, the NSA has a long history of spying on Americans, whether or not it has always had the authorization to do so.
“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”―George Orwell, Animal Farm
What many fail to realize, however, is that the government is not operating alone. It cannot. It requires an accomplice. Thus, the increasingly complex security needs of our massive federal government, especially in the areas of defense, surveillance and data management, have been met within the corporate sector, which has shown itself to be a powerful ally that both depends on and feeds the growth of governmental bureaucracy. For example, USA Today reports that five years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the homeland security business was booming to such an extent that it eclipsed mature enterprises like movie-making and the music industry in annual revenue. This security spending by the government to private corporations is forecast to exceed $1 trillion in the near future.
Money, power, control. There is no shortage of motives fueling the convergence of mega-corporations and government. But who is paying the price? The American people, of course, and you can be sure that it will take a toll on more than our pocketbooks. “You have government on a holy mission to ramp up information gathering and you have an information technology industry desperate for new markets,” says Peter Swire, the nation’s first privacy counselor in the Clinton Administration. “Once this is done, you will have unprecedented snooping abilities. What will happen to our private lives if we're under constant surveillance?” We’re at that point now.
“Until they became conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.”—George Orwell
Americans have been conditioned to accept routine incursions on their privacy rights. However, at one time, the idea of a total surveillance state tracking one’s every move would have been abhorrent to most Americans. That all changed with the 9/11 attacks. As professor Jeffrey Rosen observes, “Before Sept. 11, the idea that Americans would voluntarily agree to live their lives under the gaze of a network of biometric surveillance cameras, peering at them in government buildings, shopping malls, subways and stadiums, would have seemed unthinkable, a dystopian fantasy of a society that had surrendered privacy and anonymity.”
We have, so to speak, gone from being a nation where privacy is king to one where nothing is safe from the prying eyes of government. In search of terrorists hiding amongst us--the proverbial “needle in a haystack,” as one official termed it--the government has taken to monitoring all aspects of our lives, from cell phone calls and emails to Internet activity and credit card transactions. Much of this data is being fed through fusion centers across the country. These are state and regional intelligence centers that collect data on you.
“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”―George Orwell
Wherever you go and whatever you do, you are now being watched--especially if you leave behind an electronic footprint. When you use your cell phone, you leave a record of when the call was placed, who you called, how long it lasted and even where you were at the time. When you use your ATM card, you leave a record of where and when you used the card. There is even a video camera at most locations. When you drive a car enabled with GPS, you can be tracked by satellite. And all of this once-private information about your consumer habits, your whereabouts and your activities is now being fed to the U.S. government.
As I document in A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, the government has nearly inexhaustible resources when it comes to tracking our movements, from electronic wiretapping devices, traffic cameras and biometrics to radio-frequency identification cards, satellites and Internet surveillance.
“Big Brother is Watching You.”―George Orwell
Speech recognition technology now makes it possible for the government to carry out massive eavesdropping by way of sophisticated computer systems. Phone calls can be monitored, the audio converted to text files and stored in computer databases indefinitely. And if any “threatening” words are detected--no matter how inane or silly--the record can be flagged and assigned to a government agent for further investigation. And in recent years, federal and state governments, as well as private corporations, have been amassing tools aimed at allowing them to monitor Internet content. Users are profiled and tracked in order to identify, target and even prosecute them.
In such a climate, everyone is a suspect. And you’re guilty until you can prove yourself innocent. To underscore this shift in how the government now views its citizens, just before leaving office, President Bush granted the FBI wide-ranging authority to investigate individuals or groups, regardless of whether they are suspected of criminal activity.
“Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimetres inside your skull. ” ― George Orwell
Here’s what a lot of people fail to understand, however: it’s not just what you say or do that is being monitored, but how you think that is being tracked and targeted. We've already seen this play out on the state and federal level with hate crime legislation that cracks down on so-called “hateful” thoughts and expression, encourages self-censoring and reduces free debate on various subject matter.
Total Internet surveillance is merely the next logical step in the government’s attempts to predict and, more importantly, control the populace--and it’s not as far-fetched as you might think. For example, the NSA is now designing an artificial intelligence system that is designed to anticipate your every move. In a nutshell, the NSA will feed vast amounts of the information it collects to a computer system known as Aquaint (the acronym stands for Advanced QUestion Answering for INTelligence), which the computer can then use to detect patterns and predict behavior.
No information is sacred or spared. Everything from cell phone recordings and logs, to emails, to text messages, to personal information posted on social networking sites, to credit card statements, to library circulation records, to credit card histories, etc., is collected by the NSA. One NSA researcher actually quit the Aquaint program, “citing concerns over the dangers in placing such a powerful weapon in the hands of a top-secret agency with little accountability.”
Thus, what we are witnessing, in the so-called name of security and efficiency, is the creation of a new class system comprised of the watched (average Americans such as you and me) and the watchers (government bureaucrats, technicians and private corporations).
Clearly, the age of privacy in America is coming to a close. If Orwell’s predictions prove true, what follows will be even worse. “If you want a picture of the future,” he forewarned, “imagine a boot stamping on a human face—for ever.”