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

Given the very existence of the Googles, Bings, Facebooks, Twitters and Yahoos of the world it's no longer possible to create Ministry of Truth "Memory Holes" that the former Soviet Union, present-day North Korea and other repressive regimes have been known to implement in order to re-write history to their own advantage. And Tricky Dick would have a much tougher time of keeping his Enemies List under wraps today.

If information is to disappear on these vast repositories where everything is out in the open, it will be as a result of content rot, not through willful state intervention.

The social networks and service providers are not just the safeguards for our democracy and keeping facts out in the open, however. It goes both ways.

I think that we will all 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, geo-redundant 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 running 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.

In that context, personal information has been significantly devaluated compared to what it was worth only ten years ago.

We've been conditioned to alter our views on privacy not through systemic brainwashing methods a la Orwell's Ministry of Love and their "Room 101", but because of the way we act with our computing devices on social networks.

That conditioning has arisen primarily among the generation that has recently entered the workforce -- Generation Y, to be precise.

Much of the activity they engage in online is considered to be disposable or of minimal tangible value, because they have grown up with a peer-influenced desire to share many aspects of their lives electronically.

At 44 years old, I'm a Gen-Xer. I place a very high value on my personal data, particularly things which are important to me, such as business/financial 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 a hundred 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.

Art: Facebook

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.

What about those of us that wish to be forgotten quicker? 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.

The social networks and service providers are not just the safeguards for our democracy and keeping facts out in the open, however. It goes both ways.

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.

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 online 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.

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

Constant vigilance is going to have to be required in terms of always having to keep up our appearances and to be on our best behavior. Big Brother isn't the Government. It's your Human Resources department.

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. There's an entire industry of software companies like SpectorSoft that will be more than happy to help you spy on your corporate citizens, and that industry is growing rapidly.

All of these things that are happening 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.

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

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 if you truly are a person of interest.

Big Brother isn't the Government. It's your Human Resources department.

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.

And it's especially futile to try to hide data from those prying eyes who have a keen interest in getting access and have virtually unlimited technological and legal means to do it.

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.

The lesson to be learned from Nineteen Eighty-Four in 2014 is that 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.

Is 2014 really going to become Nineteen Eighty-Four? Or something else that Orwell himself could never envision? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

See also:

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