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

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.

TOPICS: Government, Security

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 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.

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  • A Warning From History

    "The lesson to be learned from Nineteen Eighty-Four in 2014 is that our democracies are not at risk of becoming Orwellian"

    I wonder if they thought the same in Germany before 1933 ?
    Alan Smithie
    • Not the same thing.

      Germany in the '30s were looking for someone to make things better. Their money had no value, they had no real economy, and the future was nothing but bleak. Someone came along and told them he'd make it better, and they bought into it. Unfortunately, he and his people were sociopaths. Can't win 'em all. Had the end of the first war been handled like the end of the second, the second wouldn't have happened. The REAL lesson to be learned from Germany in the '20s and '30s is "Don't start a war you can't win". Ask the Palestinians about that.

      The author (and others) are wrong when they say "if you're not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about". That's absolutely not true. Keyser Soze was right when he said that law enforcement don't try to find the truth; they decide what they think happened and ignore everything that doesn't fit the hypothesis. If, by simple misunderstanding, the NSA decides you warrant attention, they'll be at your door in an hour. They may even refuse to tell you what you've been charged with, as it's classified as a matter of national security. Even if eventually you are able to prove you've done nothing wrong, your life will be ruined.

      Couldn't happen, you say? Think they're too smart to make that kind of mistake? How many people are killed every year because the police showed up at the wrong address with their weapons drawn and kicked open the door and started shooting? So yea, it could totally happen.

      Not to mention that all of this surveillance is obviously illegal. Every pre-law in the nation knows law enforcement can't just monitor everyone all the time for no reason. Any member of the press, every member of congress, and every member of the administration that says it's legal is just plain lying. No one could be so stupid as to interpret any part of the constitution as giving the government the right to spy on everyone all the time.

      Except for the author of this article, maybe. He seems kinda dim.
      • Jonathan Schell about NSA

        “The U.S. government has gone further than any previous government … in setting up machinery that satisfies certain tendencies that are in the genetic code of totalitarianism,” Jonathan Schell wrote as this fall began.

        “One is the ambition to invade personal privacy without check or possibility of individual protection. This was impossible in the era of mere phone wiretapping, before the recent explosion of electronic communications — before the cellphones that disclose the whereabouts of their owners, the personal computers with their masses of personal data and easily penetrated defenses, the e-mails that flow through readily tapped cables and servers, the biometrics, the street-corner surveillance cameras.”
        • ...and Schell continues...

          “But now to borrow the name of an intelligence program from the Bush years, ‘Total Information Awareness’ is technologically within reach. The Bush and Obama administrations have taken giant strides in this direction.”

          To the people in control of the Executive Branch, violating our civil liberties is an essential government service. So — to ensure total fulfillment of Big Brother’s vast responsibilities — the National Security Agency is insulated from any fiscal disruption.

          The NSA’s surveillance programs are exempt from a government shutdown. With typical understatement, an unnamed official told The Hill that “a shutdown would be unlikely to affect core NSA operations.”

          (Wrote by Norman Solomon)
    • USA 2014

      Get over it already. The voters have spoken, and the mandate for a nanny state is clear, which obviously means that the govt will provide for us and protect us from all things evil. You must trade those so-called freedoms for a structure, where everyone gets to share the wealth.
      • Over-the-top simplistic

        and moronically right-wing extremist to boot.
      • And yet...

        ...the argument continues. So it looks like you still have time to change people's minds (it may take a while, but there's no reason to believe that Fabian libertarianism can't be as effective as Fabian socialism). Just remember that insulting people causes them to not listen to you. At least some people understand that (Sen. Paul comes to mind), but apparently not the ones you listen to.
        John L. Ries
  • Since the NSA

    Facebook and Google both are enormous problems.

    The signature is that they make most of their income from advertising, and the easiest way for them to increase their income is to rent out the use of more of your private information to more of their real customers.

    But that doesn't make what the NSA does, even slightly more acceptable.
    Henry 3 Dogg
    • no ms?

      they're throwing, according to ballmer, 10 billion dollars at bing. 10 B-I-L-L-I-O-N DOLLARS!
      what, you think they're going to sit on that search data? that's enough money to build two nimitz class aircraft carriers and have a billion left over.
    • Biggest problem is Microsoft Windows because...'s the fuel for botnets. Because it's a malware, spyware and crapware in same ugly package.
  • Think

    "...they do it just for ads..."

    So naive!

    Ok, suppose that I'm a foreign secret services agent. I want to track down XYZ in order to, say, kill them.

    So I create many adverts for offers that really are too good to be true.

    And I pay Google to show those adds only to people who meet the criteria that I require.

    So when anyone contacts me as a result of one of those adds, I know that Google has determined from mining their email and search activity that they are part of my intended set of victims.

    Still think that Google isn't a security threat?

    Oh, and as for you can always opt out. Google has just been fined for engineering its way round opt out's on Safari. Google will break whatever rules that it needs to break in order to sell it's clicks.
    Henry 3 Dogg
  • I can only agree with Jason in theory

    In practice, you can't search for a pressure cooker without getting a visit from the Stazi. In practice, you can't travel without having your DNA tested. In practice, you could end up in Federal Prison for opening that box you purchased. In practice, watching a movie or listening to a song could get you fined so extremely that you're out on the street.

    In theory this is a good article, but in practice, well... it's some kind of fantasy land.
    • you still can

      travel by car, shop in stores and listen to songs on CDs.

      you can also vote the %$#@ who came up with the digital rights ideas out of their offices.
      • You can vote these criminals out? In your dreams!!!

        ...Since the Citizens United verdict, your vote has been bought by the very corporations that profit from these repressive laws... A little History 101 refresher: Corporatism IS Fascism... Benito Mussolini, 1923. Still believe we live in a Democracy?
        • Your vote hasn't been bought...

          ...unless you chose to sell it. I think Citizens United was wrongly decided, but we're still free to formulate our own opinions, discuss them with our friends and neighbors, and vote our consciences. It may even be possible that the added public cynicism will give some motivation to a revival of volunteer activism (you really don't know who's paying for that TV ad, but you do know your neighbors... we hope).

          But you're probably more worried that the effects of all that anonymous propaganda on other people, instead of yourself.
          John L. Ries
        • We've never been a democracy

          We are a Constitutional Republic, but one which is more and more ignoring the very document that was designed to protect against government excesses.
          Iman Oldgeek
  • We always have options.

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

    We always have options. Including going back - if enough people want it, and enough people refuse to use these services.

    The Pandora's Box is something you invented in order to protect your arguments from further counter-arguments. It's not a real rational argument by itself.

    And I never said I was fine with what Facebook is doing, or anybody else who does anything similar.

    Problem is, nobody in any real power wants to do anything about it. Government won't, they're too busy defending the NSA.

    Mass media won't, they're too busy serving up the ads that make this sort of thing possible. Sites like ZDNet won't even consider *optional* forms of subscription.

    Whatever happened to the idea of paying to remove ads? Why is that not a thing anymore?

    Facebook and other similar services won't, for the same reason.
  • There was a subtext to 1984 that both David & Jason ignored in their debate

    That subtext was the implied realization that Big Brother was "Global" or omnipresent. Oh sure, there were other countries involved (but not many) in that oft quoted literary work but the overriding theme was of a universal oppression thru omnipresent surveillance of individuals under Big Brother's gaze.

    David & Jason (if memory serves) confined their remarks to the USA and their citizens.

    But Orwellian electronic surveillance has almost been achieved thru the "Five Eyes" program (formed in secret in 1946) where surveillance data is shared among the five member states.

    The NSA could "truthfully" state to Congress (and their track record for giving truthful testimony to Congressional committee members is pitiful, IMO) that the NSA does not spy on US citizens. In reality, they would let the Canadians or the British do that for them, for example, and then have those member states share their intelligence. Of course, the NSA would reciprocate in due measure until a global surveillance net was in place.

    Of course, Jason opines that electronic surveillance conducted by non-governmental sources are a far worse concern. But, exactly, what would happen in a worse case scenario involving a breach of personal privacy and security? Well, identity theft and it's ramifications for personal financial ruin and are indeed grave concerns.

    But when a Governmental abuse of power against it's citizens occurs, the worse case scenarios involve injury, imprisonment and/or death. Personally, I'd rather risk having my credit card information stolen rather than being tossed in jail or worse. Of course, these worst case scenarios would occur only if events like being mistaken for a terrorist in front of secret and (as David opined) overworked and ill informed Judges presiding over those secretive courts could happen. I'm not willing to take that minuscule chance - people do win the Mega Lottery, after all.

    No, wiser individuals than David, Jason and myself have just analyzed these scenarios and have suggested some changes to the NSA mode of operation. It will be 1984 if those suggestions are ignored.
  • Could not have said it better

    I agree completely with Jason. The U.S. government doesn't worry me nearly as much as Big Internet.
    David Gewirtz
    • In a sense you are right and wrong

      Big business pays for your politicians, hence Government is big business.

      I think the entire subject is at least worthy of a PhD thesis and is beyond the scope of the ZDnet comments section.
      Alan Smithie