Has 1984 finally arrived?

The revelations of the PRISM electronic surveillance program conducted by the US National Security Agency (NSA) have sparked a wave of paranoia that we are all under the watchful gaze of malevolent eyes. Sales of George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel 1984 have gone through the roof. Are the fears justified?

In at least some ways, the dismal picture of the future, penned by Orwell while he was a dying man, bears an uncomfortable resemblance to today. We have video surveillance on street corners, in stores, in car parks and, as the more paranoid among us have suggested, perhaps even in our homes through web cams and our smartphones!

We have summary assassinations by high-tech remote-controlled armed drone aircraft of persons adjudged by our “commanders in chiefs” and “security agencies” to be enemies of the state, along with the usual collateral damage of innocent men, women and children who just happened to be nearby during the unfortunate moment in time.

At airports, we have people being passed through metal detectors, high intensity X-Ray machines, being scanned and groped, being forced to take off their shoes and belts, and having nail clippers confiscated. Frail elderly women and little children are searched.

Then there are the endless wars against unseen and unknowable enemies in foreign lands that we are being drawn into. We have our Emanuel Goldstein equivalents with names like Bin Laden, Ahmadinejad, Hussein, Gaddafi, Assad, and that unassailable foe, Mr Terror, upon whom we’ve declared war.

We have explosions in public places, followed by instant trials by the visual media, in which “suspects are identified and implicitly adjudged guilty” by law enforcement officials on TV.  The public are enlisted on TV to assist in the manhunt for the despicable “terrorists”, who are already presumed guilty and as a result will never have their day in court. This abrogation of the rule of law in western democracies is unpleasant but necessary because we are in the midst of a never ending “War on Terror”.

We could go on about the suspension of Habeas Corpus – the right to be brought before a court under a named charge within a reasonable period if arrested. We could talk about the treatment of prisoners held without charge and tortured in prisons like Guantanamo Bay. We could talk about the abhorrent treatment of whistleblowers and the diminishing freedom of the true press and the wilful complicity of a mainstream corporate media that acts more like a propaganda arm of government and corporations. However, enough has been said about the parallels with the nightmarish Orwellian future depicted by the great novelist.

In the year 2013 AD, we are still a fair way short of Orwell’s 1984 and one of the key reasons is technological. In fact, it has everything to do with networks, communications technology and the Internet, the very same network that the alleged surveillance state is accused of using to spy on us.

As brilliant a visionary as he was, Orwell’s surveillance network was fundamentally different to the one that exists today. Communications were certainly two-way and massive databases would certainly have had to be in place in such a surveillance state. However, all the data was in the hands of the state on centralised servers. The concept of peer to peer networking and communications was absent from that world. Thus, there was no free communications between the tortured inhabitants of Airstrip One. The only communications were between the controllers and the controlled.

In our peer-to-peer networking world of course, we still have free communications of ideas between individuals, there is still local storage and there are still ways of maintaining your privacy. That said, the net does appear to be tightening and, unwittingly, we are perhaps helping to build our own cyber cage. Every time we post our profile on Facebook or another social network, every time we do a search on Google, every time we choose to store our emails, personal musings or other data in the cloud, whether it be on Google’s, Microsoft’s, Amazon’s, Apple’s or some other multinational corporation’s servers, we are potentially helping to build this cage.

We can still communicate freely with each other and the above-mentioned corporations and other cloud providers promise us that they will keep our conversations private. However, in light of the PRISM revelations, can we really trust these organisations to keep their promise even if they wanted to? The veiled, guarded language of Google’s Page and Facebook’s Zuckerberg concerning government access to our data offer minimal comfort at best.

And what of smaller cloud providers, can we trust them to keep our data safe from prying eyes? We’ve already seen what happens when companies like Megaupload and Pirate Bay try to provide infrastructure which people can use to share information freely. They get raided and imprisoned. Does anyone seriously think that small cloud providers could stand up to the might of global security agencies if they wanted to gain access to our data?

We still have the freedom to criticise our governments. We still have a considerable proportion of humanity that can think for itself. However, the torch of social justice in the free world, where freedom is steadily diminishing, is flickering and there seem to be ever fewer sparks to reignite it. The Internet, though some use it in questionable ways, is still our best hope to stave off an Orwellian future.


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Stan Beer


Stan Beer co-founded iTWire in 2005. With 30 plus years of experience working in IT and Australian technology media, Beer has published articles in most of the IT publications that have mattered, including the AFR, The Australian, SMH, The Age, as well as a multitude of trade publications.