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Is Modern Surveillance Really 'Orwellian'?

Posted: 11/09/2013 00:00

How, why, and when, a government monitors its own population is one of those vexing 'big' questions. It usually hums away in the background, but presently dominates the front pages, such as the furore of the UK's Communications Data Bill ('Snoopers Charter' to critics), and revelations by whistleblower Edward Snowden about NSA and GCHQ activities.

Civil liberties groups and campaigners have raised serious and legitimate concerns about what is being done in the name of security. As I've argued elsewhere we need a much larger, open public debate to determine the balance between security and liberty in a digital age. But too many sensible opponents are disposed to calling surveillance measures 'Orwellian'. We all have a shared interest in keeping society safe as well as free, and regular refrain to our most celebrated dystopian nightmare is not helpful in getting us there.

Some examples, from Chris Huhne ) Paul Bernal and
Shami Chakrabarti. But for some, current surveillance measures would have left Big Brother salivating. Jameel Jaffer of the American Civil Liberties Union called the NSA 'beyond Orwellian'. Not to be outdone, Rick Falkvinge, founder of the first Pirate Movement said the NSA is 'far, far beyond the point of Stasi or 1984." My favourite of all is John Oliver on the Daily Show: Prism is the sort of thing 'George Orwell wet the bed over'.

I wonder if these (actually very thoughtful) individuals have read Orwell lately. In 1984, state surveillance and control was total, absolute. A constant tele-screen mounted in every single room in the country picked up every noise above a whisper, every move. But nothing was illegal in Oceania, because there were no laws, which meant you could be arrested for anything, you wouldn't know what. Even the mildest suspicion of anti-state sentiment was punishable by death without explanation, trial, or appeal.

Starting a diary, would (if you were lucky) land you 25 years in a forced labour camp. Winston Smith was knew that even thinking 'Down With Big Brother!' - whether he wrote it or not - would lead the 'Thought Police' to him, and when they arrived (they always did) he would just vanish without trace: 'People simply disappeared, always during the night. Your name was removed from the registers, every record of everything you had ever done was wiped out, your one-time existence was denied and then forgotten. You were abolished, annihilated: vaporized was the usual word.'

I have spent the last few minutes trying but failing to even imagine something 'far, far beyond' this on the totalitarian scale. The NSA, in my view, has certainly overreached and its (several) oversight mechanisms appear fairly flimsy. The original Communications Data Bill was too loosely drafted and a quasi judicial oversight system rather than an inter-departmental one for police data requests would be better. Serious concerns: but not Orwellian. An Orwellian security system is beyond criticism, after all - ours are coming under increasing pressure for openness, face legal and political challenge, and often appear unable to prevent leaks. Because of their absolute control, Orwellian systems are also almost perfectly competent. Ours fail.

Three years before he released Big Brother, Orwell published a lesser-known but equally brilliant essay Politics and the English language. In it, he lamented the way "euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness" was blunting political discourse. He especially detested lazy metaphors, which he said were anaesthetising our brains, "giving an appearance of solidity to pure wind".

The issue of national security and liberties is a serious subject, one that needs serious discussion. If governments tend toward exaggerating threats and need for secrecy, so opponents reach too quickly for the language of totalitarianism. In a brilliant salvo, Orwell asked us to send worn-out and useless metaphors "some jackboot, Achilles' heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno, or other lump of verbal refuse - into the dustbin where it belongs." Sorry George: I'd also like to propose your surname joins the rubbish heap.

 

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