Will 2014 be Nineteen Eighty Four?

Summary:In light of the NSA Snowden revelations, we asked our debaters: Is Orwell's vision coming into focus at last?

David Gewirtz

David Gewirtz

Yes

or

No

Jason Perlow

Jason Perlow

Best Argument: No

72%
28%

Audience Favored: Yes (72%)

The moderator has delivered a final verdict.

Opening Statements

We're getting there.

David Gewirtz: In George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, a man named Winston Smith works for the Ministry of Truth. His job is to rewrite history according to instructions from the state.

He finds himself disturbed by the actions of the state and Big Brother and plots to expose and overthrow the state.

Up to this point, you can certainly see the loose parallels to the Edward Snowden debacle. Orwell's Smith is captured, tortured, and eventually the Thought Police reprogram him to love Big Brother.

Orwell's 1949 masterpiece envisions a world that goes far beyond the NSA revelations we've been enduring these last months. Orwell envisions a world of comprehensive surveillance, of public mind control, of privileged inner circles, of cults of personality, and where individual thinking can be punished as a "thought crime."

Yeah. We're getting there. I'm not sure I should say any more. Big Brother is watching, you know.

See also:

The government just isn't that into you

Jason Perlow: 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.

NSA started with radio transmissions and analog telephone signals, and as the world went digital, it wiretapped the Internet. Programs such as PRISM extend that wiretapping to not just the traffic moving across the "pipes," but now directly into the databases of the providers hosting the most widely-used applications and services in the Cloud. And the NSA has the legal means via FISC to retrieve what it does not do or cannot do electronically.

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?

I hate to break it to you guys, but  the government just isn't that into you.

The only people who should be concerned about surveillance are those that become "blips on the radar" through activities that legitimately threaten our national security. While there's no question there are NSA supercomputers churning through your private emails and social media activities, the bottom line is that the vast majority of us are simply just chaff in the harvest in terms of intelligence value to our government.

The Rebuttal

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Welcome back

    To our Great Debate. Today we'll be arguing over the NSA spying revelations. Are the debaters ready

    Posted by Steve Ranger

    I'm set

    Did my homework.

    David Gewirtz

    I am for Yes

    I'm prepared

    Let's get it on.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Why now?

    First question. There's been plenty of online surveillance for years. Why is the situation different now?


    Posted by Steve Ranger

    It's a trust issue

    Government trust rises and falls in cycles. As I wrote in 2013: The year trust died , Americans were fairly trusting of their government up until the 1960s. The Vietnam war and the Nixon resignation caused that decline. The Iraq war and the Great Recession caused another trust decline.

    When there's a trust decline, there's often polarization. On top of that, we've become a vastly different news-producing and consuming society, with the need to constantly feed the content beast and generate ad revenue more intensely than ever before. When a juicy news story meets a desperate need for traffic, and there's a way to sustain the buzz through social networks, you have a perfect storm.

    David Gewirtz

    I am for Yes

    Society's changed

    Nothing has really changed from an operational standpoint, obviously. The programs continue to exist. However we've gone as a society which went from having blessed ignorance of the actual mechanics and scope of online surveillance, to being shown how the sausage is made.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    What changed?

    What has the drip-drip of Snowden revelations really changed?

    Posted by Steve Ranger

    Snowden fatigue

    Our patience, for one thing. I think we're all suffering Snowden and NSA fatigue. I know I tire of writing up yet another debunking article about yet another revelation that's yet again no revelation at all. But many in the press don't have a sense of history, and don't have a broad perspective on how geopolitics really works.

    So as another TV network once put it about reruns, "If you haven't seen it, it's new to you."

    David Gewirtz

    I am for Yes

    Drawing attention

    It has not fundamentally changed anything, other than creating a constant cadence of worldwide attention to the programs themselves, and a way for nations to publicly denounce the programs of competing nations with their own interests, even though they were almost certainly aware they were occurring and were not strictly in the scope of national security concerns.
     
    It went from a "Don't talk about Fight Club" situation among the major world powers, all of which have programs for online surveillance, to finger-pointing and one-upmanship on the world stage on a weekly basis.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    What's wrong with surveillance?

    What are the real-world negative impacts of online surveillance for the average person?

    Posted by Steve Ranger

    Worry

    There are actually very few. For most people, they'll notice absolutely no change. Behind the scenes, the so-called "revelations" of government surveillance might cause IT operations to implement better practices, and add more costly operations that are also beneficial, like encryption.

    It is possible that the increased cost and effort may trickle down to the average person, but I think we'd all rest easier knowing our data is encrypted in transit and in storage on servers.

    The big negative impact is that the average person is now more worried about government surveillance than criminal cyberthieves. The actual bad guys out there are a far greater threat to individuals in a much more tangible way, but most people don't give that very real danger much thought at all.

    David Gewirtz

    I am for Yes

    Blip on the radar

    There are no real-world negative impacts of state-sponsored online surveillance for the average person. 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.

    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.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    The fear factor

    How do you respond to the argument 'If you've got nothing to fear you've got nothing to hide'?

    Posted by Steve Ranger

    No need to hide

    Fellow ZDNet writer Zack Whittaker once asked me that question, and I stand by my answer now as then: It's not a valid argument. Whether or not someone has a guilty pleasure (or something they really need to hide, like a sexual preference or a disease that could cause cruel discrimination), every American has a rock-solid right to privacy. Period.

     On the few occasions when the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few (or the one), an entire judicial system of checks and balances comes into play to be sure that impinging on that right of privacy is necessary, justified, and without alternative.

    I'm not a proponent of the claim that if you've nothing to fear, there's no need to fear surveillance. We all know individuals can get a bug to dig into things, whether justified or not.

    David Gewirtz

    I am for Yes

    Bad guys must worry

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

    Repression isn't necessarily a function of us having a surveillance program, we would need to actually become an Orwellian, East-German style state for this to be a matter of concern. 

    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.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Is privacy a dead issue?

    Is it foolish to have any expectation of privacy anymore?

    Posted by Steve Ranger

    Privacy has its place

    No, of course not. But it's also important to be aware of what you're saying and where. Let me give you an example. When a husband and wife engage in pillow-talk, that should be private. But if the husband is an airline pilot and the wife is a doctor, when they speak in public as professionals, they must be circumspect about their statements because they reflect on the perception of their respective professions and their ability to perform critical jobs.

     Likewise, if we're trying to prevent real, actual dangers like the Boston Marathon bombing or the terrible school shooting this last week, it's important to keep a degree of situational awareness, because it might save lives. But that doesn't extend to spying through everyone's webcam and smartphone camera, and recording everything said at all times. That's truly Orwellian.

    Fortunately, that's not happening (although we have seen isolated incidents of that sort of spying, not by governments, but by equipment and furniture rental companies). Go figure.

    David Gewirtz

    I am for Yes

    Depends on who's in control

    Based on what we know is happening at the highest levels government, it's obviously unrealistic to set expectations of personal privacy from entities like the NSA, the CIA and the FBI these days due to national security requirements and the technology and legal means they have in their own possession.
     
    However, if we are talking about physical and electronic privacy from our neighbors, from our employers and other businesses and corporations, I believe we have the right to secure our own privacy as individuals using enabling technology and other means.

    You should be locking down your profiles as much as you possibly can, and only let in those friends who are within your circle of trust. And on those networks where your activity cannot be concealed from public view, then I suggest you modify your behavior accordingly.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Our rights

    Do we need a right to be forgotten?

    Posted by Steve Ranger

    We need to extend our rights

    No. We need our rights to be extended with clarity into cyberspace. As we've moved into cyberspace as a society, our legislators and lobbyists have both feared the disintermediation of cyberspace and seen opportunities to remove rights that existed prior to cyberspace, claiming the domain doesn't deserve the same protection.

     Examples of this abound, from the attacks against fair use, to the claim that online journalists don't deserve the same shields as traditional journalists, simply because online journalists paint their words with pixels, while traditional journalists paint their words with toxic inks.

    We are a nation founded on rights. Our leaders sometimes selectively forget that, but that's why there's a Constitution.

    David Gewirtz

    I am for Yes

    We will have to pay for digital permanence. Being forgotten is cheap.

    I think that we will be forgotten -- in the sense of there being any digital permanence of our online activity --- simply because there is far too much data out there and the cost of storing it multiple times over indefinitely due to the realities of  running highly-available cloud-based applications is exorbitant for what are essentially free services.
     
    Spindle (Hard Disk Drive) costs may have gone down over the years, and the density of those spindles may have improved considerably, but the datacenters are only getting bigger and bigger and the operational costs of such large scale services are astronomical.
     
    How many web sites from ten years ago have gone dark or have broken links and content? There are far too many to count. Those are the consequences for a society that has eschewed paper documents and file cabinets in favor of random-access data and magnetic storage. Data rot and survivability is a very real concern.
     
    Eventually Google, Facebook and other companies will need to purge old data or charge retention fees for customers that want to save that data either for posterity or because it has value by being cloud-accessible, because that is the Cloud business model. Advertising only pays for so many terabytes.
     
    We certainly as end-users of these services have the ability, today, to delete status updates, picture and video uploads and those sorts of things. But it's cumbersome to purge them in bulk, particularly ones that go back years. I believe service providers such as Facebook and Google should give us the enabling tools to do that, even though it may not be in their interest to do so.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    The public's view

    Is there really likely to be any push back from the public about the levels of surveillance? Do you see people changing their behavior at all?

    Posted by Steve Ranger

    International issues

    Some people always get riled up about stuff. There's a type of person who goes all "activist" over almost anything. Look at the Occupy movement. A lot of people put tremendous energy into making a fuss, which did create awareness and talking points, but ultimately resulted in little change.

    However, there is most definitely push back in the international enterprise world. Even though most sophisticated IT operations the world over were generally aware of these practices, the Snowden theft gave non-American competitors new sales talking points and those non-American companies are milking it for all they can.

    David Gewirtz

    I am for Yes

    Private sector is scarier than the NSA

    I am much, much more concerned about Google and Facebook and other companies mis-using my personal information, or an accidental PII or a HIPAA breach caused by someone in the private sector than I am of willful inspection of my personal data by government entities.

    Conversely I am concerned about how our on-line presence and day to day interaction on social networks could potentially influence our ability to be insured, to secure loans, et cetera, due to potential monitoring by the corporations we do business with and are responsible for life-changing decisions that are not under our direct control.

    I am also concerned about employers who monitor our social network and other on-line presences and the constant vigilance that is going to have to be required in terms of always having to keep up our appearances and to be on our best behavior.

    We should also expect and be fully aware that the social networks we participate on are also monitored by employers. I personally know not to harass people nor represent myself or my employer in such a fashion that would have negative impact on my employer, and thus could result in my termination.

    Besides social networks, you should be wary about how you conduct yourself in the workplace when it comes to electronic communications.

    In addition to those of us who use company assets such as work-issued laptops, many of us also have smartphones and tablets that are enrolled in messaging and other services connected to our employer's networks, and there are policies that are enforced on them to ensure security compliance and other things if we want to continue to use those networks.

    We should fully expect all communications using those assets and networks to be monitored.

    All of these things in the private sector, not the activities of the NSA or entities like it, will cause a "cooling effect" on user behavior more than anything else.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    A change in attitude?

    Do we place less value on our personal information now, compared to a decade or two back? If so, why?

    Posted by Steve Ranger

    Not much of an issue today

    That's interesting. We produce vastly more personal information now. When I went to Alaska in the 1980s, I took about thirty rolls of film, roughly 720 images. Developing those pictures cost about $250 in 1985 (about $430 dollars today, according to the CPI inflation calculator) -- and that didn't even count the original cost of the film. Back then, it was expensive to take pictures.

    Today, we all carry very high-resolution cameras with us wherever we go, and pictures cost nothing to take. We're all generating messages back and forth to each other for work and on Facebook. All that means we're creating a lot more information.

    So, are we placing less value on our information, or are we producing a lot of information that is simply less valuable? I think we still value our important personal information, but are less discerning about sharing cute cat pictures. That said, kids and some adults don't realize that posting to Twitter or Facebook is for life, and also don't realize that all these tools are really publishing and archiving media.

    David Gewirtz

    I am for Yes

    The generation gap

    I think it depends on the age of who you ask this question. I place a very high value on my personal data, things which are important documents and those which have sentimental value, such as my digital photos. But then there are things with considerably less tangible value, such as “Lifestream” data.
     
    In 100 years, will people be thinking Tweets, Instagram photos and Vine bursts were works of art and should have merited preservation? Are we going to mourn for their loss as academicians still do for books of ancient knowledge destroyed in the fire of the library of Alexandria? No, because they are considered to be completely disposable.

    They are forgotten just as quickly as they go viral.

    And I can assure you, unlike printed media, the record of these things are unlikely to exist in a century hence unless active measures are taken to preserve them.

    The problem I think among the generation that has recently entered the workforce (Generation Y, to be precise) is that much of the activity they engage in online is considered to be disposable or of minimal tangible value, and who have grown up with a peer-influenced desire to share many aspects of their lives electronically.

    In that context, the value of personal information is diminished compared to how we dealt with it ten years ago.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    The economic impact

    Pretty much the entire internet economy is based on harvesting our personal information. Do you see that changing any time soon?

    Posted by Steve Ranger

    Value brings risk

    Not really. As long as we derive more benefit than worry, it's worth it. Take self-driving cars. For those to work, the vehicles need to know all the various destinations you're going to, as well as the maps of the terrain. While a company like Google (or Ford) might derive analytics information from those travel patterns, if a car can take someone who otherwise couldn't drive (say an elder) from home to a doctor's appointment, it's providing incredible value.

    In most cases, we're all deriving incredible, unprecedented value from sharing some of our information with Internet application vendors. There's a risk though: if those Internet companies don't go out of their way to protect our information, we could have incidents like the Adobe password hack (except much, much worse).

    It's our responsibility to hold those with whom we entrust our information accountable to be good and honorable stewards of that data.

    David Gewirtz

    I am for Yes

    Nothing's free

    The current internet economy is for the most part based on exploiting personal datapoints for monetization using free services and also using that data for targeted advertising.

    But at some point value-added services that we pay for, with SLAs and strict data governance assurances (and the potential for litigation for not having safeguards attached to them) will displace a good portion of this.

    Meeting the needs of business is how the Cloud will mature.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Can we change?

    How does this evolve over the next few years? Is there any way back out of the world of routine universal surveillance?

    Posted by Steve Ranger

    Maintaining a strong defense

    As long as their are terrorists, organized criminals, and rogue nation-states willing to attack our citizens, there will need to be a strong defense. Surveillance is part of that -- not as a choice, but of necessity.

    Remember, we have more than 330 million people in this country, with free and open borders. That's 330 million independent variables, not counting the billions in the rest of the world. Keeping track of all that takes more than shoe leather, it takes automation.

    My fear isn't the routine surveillance designed to keep Americans safe. My fear is the rest of Orwell's prophesy, the overwhelming control by small cabals of industry (think about how lobbyists are controlling our lawmaking process) and the group-think that seems to take hold almost naturally (the Snowden saga is a perfect example).

    The NSA is quite definitely NOT Big Brother, since it would prefer to be in the shadows, not worshiped and loved as Orwell's Big Brother was. But there are individuals, organizations, religious movements, and nationalist leaders out there who don't see Big Brother as a threat, but as a goal.

    We can't let that happen. Rather than being Big Brother, I honestly believe the NSA can help protect us from Orwell's Big Brother by being aware of dangerous plots and helping other agencies investigate them.

    David Gewirtz

    I am for Yes

    Nowhere to hide

    I think Pandora’s Box has been opened when it comes to electronic surveillance. Going back is not an option.

    So understanding the consequences of our own personal activities and actions online is paramount when we are living in a society where it's futile to try to hide data electronically from those prying eyes who have a keen interest in getting access to it and have unlimited technological and legal means to do so.

    We should also be collectively aware there are consequences for acting stupidly online and that the shield of anonymity for those of us who were cowardly enough to exploit it in the past is not as strong as it used to be.

    At the same time, we can't live in fear that every single one of us is going to become a blip on the radar, because that's just feeding Orwellian paranoia.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Thanks

    Thanks once again for joining our Great Debate. I hope you enjoyed it. And thanks to our debaters for fighting until the end. Tomorrow, the David and Jason will post their final arguments and Thursday, I'll reveal my choice for the winner. Please check out the comments from our readers and add your own. And don't forget to vote.

    Posted by Steve Ranger

Closing Statements

Every year more and more

David Gewirtz

One truly interesting take-away after reading Nineteen Eighty-Four is that Orwell never specifically identifies Big Brother. We don't know if Big Brother is a person, a group, or even just a shared belief system. That's part of what made the story such an important cautionary tale.

Many in our audience do have a shared view of what Big Brother looks like, and that's the image forever seared in our minds from the 1984 introduction of the Macintosh. We saw soldiers walking in lock-step, a population of near zombies in gray, and, of course Anya Major flinging the hammer.

In this debate, we've focused our attention on just one small aspect of the Orwellian future we worry about: surveillance. But Orwell's dystopian vision was about so much more: group think, thought police, unknowing blind worship, and more.

Agencies like the NSA are not trying to become Big Brother. They are merely carrying out their mission of protecting Americans. But that doesn't mean we don't have to be constantly aware of the forces of Big Brother. We can see signs in Big Brother in some of our organized religions, in our largest corporations, in industry and interest groups trying to control the national agenda through influence.

Every year can be more and more like Nineteen Eighty-Four. It's our job to throw the hammer of truth and let the light in.

Our democracies are not at risk

Jason Perlow

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. His nightware was transformed into reality by the time his novel was published in 1949.

The Stasi, the East German Ministry of 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 from the Soviet Union's own KGB.

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 American Democracy, this is just plainly not the case, and even my opponent will be first to admit this.

It is also impossible in our democracy -- given the existence of Googles, Bings, Facebooks, Twitters and Yahoos of the world -- to create "Memory Holes" that the Soviet Union, North Korea and other repressive regimes have been known to implement in order to re-write history to their own advantage. If information is to disappear on these vast repositories, it will be as a result of content rot, not through willful state intervention.

The bottom line: Our democracies are not at risk of becoming Orwellian, but we should always view the extreme ends of dystopia for what they are, and as models that we should never emulate.

We have the technology, but no Big Brother to run it

Steve Ranger

The Snowden revelations have detailed just how pervasively we are surveilled by government agencies – our own and those abroad. Pretty much any electronic communication is likely to be vacuumed up by one spy agency or another, while physical surveillance in the form of ever more CCTV cameras makes even walking down the street an event to be catalogued by the authorities.  

If that wasn't enough, we cheerfully hand over our personal information in exchange for access to social networks, which then repackage our information for advertisers. 

So does all of this mean that Big Brother is alive and well and will be running our lives in 2014? 

The technology is in place for sure, and evolving to allow even more fine-grained analysis every year. 

But probably the most striking point is that in 1984 nobody seems to be having a lot of fun; not the proles, not even the party chiefs; it's a society marked by shortages and discomfort as well as permanent surveillance. In the novel this lack of fun is part of the system – a result of the constant warfare between the different blocs.

In contrast, right now we have a surveillance state that pretty much everyone is comfortable with, and one that doesn't impact on our day-to-day lives; most are willing to trade a small daily and barely noticeable amount of privacy in exchange for intelligence agencies and law enforcement to be able to operate. 

To me it's a question of intent; we have the technology but no Big Brother to run it, at least not yet. So against the popular vote, I'm giving this one to Jason.

Topics: Great Debate

About

Steve Ranger is the UK editor-in-chief of ZDNet and TechRepublic, and has been writing about technology, business and culture for more than a decade. Previously he was the editor of silicon.com.

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