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

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.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

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    

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.

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