Does everything eventually boil down to George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four? It seems so, in a strange way it is similar to Godwin's Law (that in an argument, the Nazi's or Hitler will eventually be mentioned) and with every year that passes and as new technology is developed, Orwell's seminal and oft cited work seems to resonate stronger. It sometimes seems his writings have infiltrated every industry. For example, the upcoming Xbox One will have a built in webcam and microphone that is always switched on to enable hand gestures and voice controls, and various 'cloud' based storage systems mean that you can store your data in a type of metaphorical digital heaven. In the case of the new Xbox One, does the fact that the console will potentially be watching your every movement bother you? Will it eventually go the way of Skynet or Hal? Will you need Arnold Schwarzenegger to save you when it becomes self aware? Probably not, but it is still an unsettling prospect. With technology becoming ever more invasive, we have to ask the difficult question of where the border rests when balancing human privacy and computer based snooping. In the land of the Internet we have to consider if privacy is even considered a basic right and if there is an online equivalent of 'off the record'. It seems that Big Brother is not only watching, he is taking detailed notes.
The Snowden/NSA Leaks
In a story that is still developing, a former NSA employee named Edward Snowden has leaked a number of classified documents that outline the security services Prism and Boundless Informant programs. These allegedly collect, collate and monitor meta-data and information on a rather grandiose scale. Leaked to The Guardian and The Washington Post - one of the more shocking aspects of the story comes from the claim that companies such as Google, Yahoo and Facebook have been implicated in openly sharing data with the US government. The allegations have been denied by these companies, however some have noted that their denials are curiously worded. It is still speculation if the UK government's security centre GCHQ has used the data supplied by Prism or Boundless Informant, and so far Foreign Secretary William Hague has downplayed the notion of wrongdoing, with a refusal to acknowledge if the UK had any knowledge of the workings of the Prism programme for security reasons.
It should come as no surprise that government monitors its citizens, but it seems the actual extent of the surveillance has left many surprised, and many feeling a little violated. Since the 9/11 terror attacks, the US introduced the Patriot Act among others (some reports exist that President Obama has also used the 1917 Espionage Act against journalists) that grant the government increased powers of surveillance, both online and off. It is when you read the details of the legislation that it less resembles reality and more like a John Grisham novel. It takes a reveal of this nature to back up the fact that reality is never far from fiction. The balance of human rights and governmental protection is a fine line to walk. Is there any significant difference between what could be perceived as 'good' or 'bad' information leaks? Wikileaks remains a controversial organisation - and many may choose to link Snowden to the likes of Bradley Manning - however weighing up the positives and negatives of classified cable releases is subjective. Are we better or worse off knowing the BNP membership list? Are we better or worse off having a copy of the Scientology Bible? How about US military operations or torture procedures? There is a line in the sand, somewhere in between satisfying personal interest and endangering the lives of those at war. It is this line that is now in the spotlight, and one both the US and UK governments now will be expected to draw.
Are we Oceania?
Orwell once stated that "nothing was your own except the few cubic centimetres inside your skull". Is his totalitarian vision becoming reality in front of our eyes? Perhaps, but one can't help feel we are partly to blame. Our obsession with privacy conflicts with the innate intrigue of what others are doing. When the television show Big Brother hit our screens way back in 2000, we witnessed the commercialisation of Orwellian fears. The public inhabited the role of Prism, and gleefully watched people laugh, cry, converse, dance, play and perhaps most disturbingly, sleep. Since then, 'reality TV' has become increasingly popular. What does this say about us? We enjoy secrets, we like privacy and we cherish personal space, but give us the chance to take this away from someone else to see the results? We will gladly sign along the dotted line, and pay good money.
It is too early to judge the outcome of the NSA surveillance leaks or the legality of the situation. However the fact remains, the government is collecting, collating and storing your data. They may not peek, but they still have it. You know, just in case.
You can follow me at @Jason_A_Murdock