In a way, the world-view of the Party imposed itself most successfully on people incapable of understanding it. They could be made to accept the most flagrant violations of reality, because they never fully grasped the enormity of what was demanded of them, and were not sufficiently interested in public events to notice what was happening. By lack of understanding they remained sane. They simply swallowed everything, and what they swallowed did them no harm, because it left no residue behind ¹
That was from the novel 1984. It was published in 1949 and to this day is the single most widely referenced book when it comes to talk of surveillance states and people going about their day with a limited awareness of, or an unwillingness to confront, the darker truths of their world. It’s a book about the inherent human need for privacy; the importance of having a space to call our own, even when it’s with another person; where we can discover, enjoy and share our true selves. But 1984 is also about our equally inherent propensity to accept that which we feel we cannot control.
Cliches serve. Often they become overused and ingrained in the vernacular because of an increased need for a form of relatable expression. The term ‘Orwellian’ is one such cliché. If you’ve read an article, a book, or watched a film or documentary which discusses government surveillance and systematic violations of privacy, you’ve heard of it. Orwellian. It’s got a good ring to it. But that very familiarity is a cause for concern.
It’s 2019 and the privacy community is growing. More and more people every day are beginning to question the relationships they have with technology, devices kept close in their pockets, homes rigged to the rafters with all manner of connectivity. They’re beginning to question their governments’ ideas of national security, the civil liberties they’re expected to waver in order to feel they can walk down the street safely.
But those same streets are overrun with cameras, some not difficult to find, others well hidden. And we don’t know the eyes and minds behind their lenses. True, many are used responsibly: footage could be the missing piece in the puzzle when it comes to catching a killer. But they are also used to deter the average person from stepping out of line: the “litter louts” and the owners of dogs fouling in public places.
Local authorities in the UK have used the Investigatory Powers Act more than 100 times in a year for such minor misdemeanours. This is the Act referred to by many, including politicians, as the Snoopers Charter. When it first came to light, a number of people in the UK were surveyed. Almost half of them said it didn’t bother them knowing they could be spied on by the government:
In every other country in the world, post-Snowden, people are holding their government’s feet to the fire on these issues, but in Britain we idly let this happen … We’re the country that invented James Bond and we like our spies. We have a wonderful illusion about our security services, a very comforting illusion. But it means we’re too comfortable. ²
I note this blind trust in my own family members, friends and co-workers. I observe their distracted selves, the phones they bury themselves in and the probable neglect to use what limited privacy settings those phones ship with, and I wonder what it would take to open their eyes. My own phone stays locked down. But this is my idea of damage limitation. The point is that we shouldn’t have to jump through these technological hoops and be constantly wondering whether we’re doing enough to secure some basic (and insufficient) level of privacy while enjoying what these devices have to offer.
Of course there’s the politics to consider. Government didn’t just wake up one day and decide to spy on everyone. Instead, the West, particularly the UK and the US, along with other cooperative nations in the 14 Eyes, have suffered greatly from terrorist attacks, stood up amongst the confusion and anger and promised themselves they will do anything to protect themselves from further atrocities.
There was no clearer such statement than the reaction from the US in the wake of 9/11. Americans promised themselves Never Again. But of course that wasn’t enough. The Boston Bombing happened in 2010, and was considered by many to have been caused by the intelligence community being too distracted by bulk surveillance to see what was right in front of them the whole time: suspects, leads they already had. They were too busy sifting through the ‘haystack’.
Unfortunately such failures at the national security level don’t afford officials much time or patience to reflect on strategies wisely, listening to experts and ordinary citizens outside of earshot. Mistakes are made again and the wrong lessons are learned. Australia has already rushed an encryption bill through its parliament in what many are interpreting as test case legislation; which will surely be watched with great interest by the other members of the 5 Eyes. In the UK surveillance has only increased, and we step closer and closer towards that cliché we discussed earlier. There are now calls from senior politicians to come down hard on, or even to ban, encryption.
Tech giants, security experts and privacy advocates have tirelessly tried to persuade politicians of the dangers that back doors into encryption, and device interference, could bring about for the hundreds of millions of citizens they would be designed to protect. Such an undermining of privacy and security doesn’t provide access only to law enforcement and government officials; it paves a hidden way to the most intimate parts of our digital lives – identity, photos, messages, financial records and more – for anyone with a mind to finding it.
There’s no easy fix for this. Terrorists will continue to terrorise, and yes, they may use encrypted messenger apps; but the wrong approach is to sacrifice others’ freedoms in the hopes of one-upping the criminals. No amount of control and surveillance will change their minds; it will only force them into finding alternative methods. Instead we should focus on protecting the civil liberties and human rights of every individual. This includes privacy and freedom of speech and expression. But for this to work, we need free, open and widely accessible tools like Tor – and we need to work to educate others away from the negative stigma attached to them. These tools save lives and provide millions of people around the world with freedoms too many of us take for granted.
In the light of the Snowden leaks and numerous similar examples of abuses of power, trust in government is lacking and it needs to be re-earned. Securing our right to privacy is a sure first step, and one nobody should have to fight for.
- George Orwell, 1984
- Guardian article: ‘David Davis: British ‘intellectually lazy’ about defending liberty’