Forget the NSA: Orwell's 1984 is alive and well in private industry

Summary:State-sponsored surveillance and repression should not be your concern. Social networks, providers and employers you trust to safeguard your data and livelihood is what worries me most.


When we examine Orwell's seminal work, Nineteen Eighty-Four, we have to place it in the context of the times. It was written in 1948, when the Stalinist Soviet Union's expansionist iron grip on the Eastern European territories in the post-WWII era was well underway, and the country successfully tested and began building its stockpile of nuclear weapons.

In 1948, when Orwell was finalizing his manuscript, the frightening prospect of a repressive Maoist government emerging in China was a major influence on his views about totalitarianism.

Orwell's nightware was transformed into reality by the time his novel was published in 1949.

Debate:  Will 2014 be Nineteen Eighty Four?

The Stasi, the East German Ministry for State Security and the organization that is most often compared to realizing a truly effective Orwellian state, was not formed until 1950. But it learned its techniques of creating a huge network of informants and repressing its citizens through a culture of state-sponsored surveillance and psychological warfare from the Soviet Union's own KGB.

Surveillance is both a tool for ensuring our democracy as well as for oppression.

All of this taken into full historical context, Edward Snowden's ongoing revelations of the depth of the NSA's surveillance programs has not fundamentally changed anything or proven that we live in a modern, American version of an Orwellian nightmare.

Look, folks.  The NSA is and always has been in the wiretapping business,  and because of 9/11, business has been a boomin'. The charter of the NSA since its inception has never changed, and certainly what it does with PRISM and other programs revealed from the Snowden leaks are no different than what it has done with ECHELON and any other systems that preceded it and have come since.

Other than exposing the extent of the NSA's surveillance, nothing has really changed from an operational standpoint, obviously. The programs continue to exist, although there is the very real possibility that the powerful agency may end up on a tighter leash in the future.

The only thing that has changed is that we've gone from a society which went from having blessed ignorance of the actual mechanics and scope of online surveillance, to one that now knows how the sausage is made. 

But should you be worried as a private citizen, or even as an enterprise about such things? Has our government gone all Stasi on us? Should we watch where we step, and beware of unintended thoughtcrime, so to speak?

Here's a shocker: there are no real-world negative impacts of state-sponsored online surveillance for the average person in a modern democracy.

Generally speaking there's mountains of chaff and only a few grains worth closely examining that the NSA and similar organizations care about. Despite concerns that our democracies are turning into Stasi-like police states where every citizen's movement is watched though oppressive old-school, human-based intelligence and monitoring, that's just not the case.

The bottom line is that we are all part of one huge Big Data application, and only a tiny fraction of a percent of us whose emails, social network updates, cloud data and any number of other touch-points which are sifted through by sophisticated algorithms running on government big iron systems on a daily basis will actually create a "blip" on the radar that merits further examination by human analysts.

Surveillance is both a tool for ensuring our democracy as well as for oppression.

I would say that if you are engaged in activities that could be potentially damaging to the national security interests of this country then you probably should be extremely concerned.

Those activities, among other related things which would pique the interest of the NSA, the CIA and the FBI include the trafficking of illegal drugs and weapons, money laundering, and of course, conspiring to commit acts of terrorism or enabling those who would do so. 

Not doing any of those things? Carry on then.

The litmus test of whether or not we live under an Orwellian, Big Brother government is very simple -- the repression of independent thought and freedoms of expression by imprisoning or "disappearing" those citizens and the families of those who would oppose them.

Under our current American democracy, this is just plainly not happening.

We all know that anyone involved in social or political change movements as an activist or reporter or just a citizen can be a victim of a repressive government. If we examine history, we know that even the US can turn repressive.

Nixon’s Enemies List was a real thing. Post-9/11 there were also many opportunities to harass people, although it looks like our government avoided most of them.

However, repression isn't necessarily a function of us having a surveillance program. We would need to actually become an Orwellian, East German or North Korean-style state for this to be a matter of concern. 

Continue reading: Pandora’s Box has been opened    

Topics: Government, Security


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet is a technologist with over two decades of experience with integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer... Full Bio

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