1984 and Our Modern Surveillance Society

Written by on August 9, 2014 in Government, Spying and Surveillance with 0 Comments
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Antony Funnell | ABC

Mass surveillance is now a part of our social, economic and political lives—governments and companies snoop on us like never before. But are we really heading toward an Orwellian future?

When George Orwell finished work on 1984 he was already a man without a future. Fading rapidly from tuberculosis, his most celebrated novel was to be his last.


He died shortly after its publication.

Yet more than half a century later, his dystopian vision of the future is alive and in rude good health.

The Shake & Stir theatre company is just completing a national tour of Australia with an adaptation overseen by noted director and dramaturge Michael Futcher.

The play wasn’t originally meant to tour, but for Futcher, its popularity with a contemporary audience is entirely understandable.

‘The world of 1984 is a perfect metaphor for today,’ he says. ‘People want to understand the nature of the type of power which is wielded in this story and how it relates to our own society. I think the audience just get it, they get the parallels very clearly, because they are so obvious these days.’

‘When we did the show here originally in 2012 we had packed houses pretty much every night and it was sold out almost before opening night. The whole season was sold out.’

As Futcher points out, sales of the novel on Amazon.com increased last year by nearly 9,000 per cent following the revelation by US whistleblower Edward Snowden that US security organisations—in particular the NSA—were engaged in global mass surveillance on an unprecedented scale.


‘All of this space that we thought was open to us and was free for us to express ourselves in, suddenly seems very closed,’ says futurist and digital culture analyst Mark Pesce, who believes the Snowden expose has not only made 1984more relevant, but also caused many people to reassess the nature and direction of our digital world.

‘For 29 years after 1984 we really thought we'd dodged a bullet, that western democracies were safe, powerful and we were all living in freedom. Then last year when the Snowden revelations came out it started to become clearer and clearer that in fact 1984 wasn’t far off the mark; that the NSA and its associated organisations were all colluding in massive wide-scale surveillance of populations and specific targeted surveillance of world leaders.’

More troubling still, according to Pesce, is the fact that the governments cooperating with the United States in wholesale global surveillance include Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia—all nations with strong democratic and anti-totalitarian traditions.

‘Everything that we projected onto the Stasi in East Germany as being this ultimate totalitarian state with its monitoring of the population has in fact become reflected back to us in the scale of what the NSA is doing.’

Complicating matters further, Pesce says, is the fact that the economic and social basis for much of our modern digital existence is now centred firmly around some form of surveillance; a social media platform like Facebook, for instance, only works the way it does because its users allow the company to trawl their personal data in return for recommendation-based services.

We may not always recognise this more benign form of surveillance for what it is, but Pesce believes its prevalence complicates our understanding of the difference between healthy data-tracking and unhealthy surveillance.

‘Younger people share and share freely because this is the culture they've grown up in. Folks who are a little bit older, they're new to it and they do it, but it's something that they learned when they were a little older and they maybe have a bit more critical distance around it.’

‘That critical distance can range from wide open “yes, I'm going to share everything” all the way to tinfoil: “I don't even own a mobile phone”. You meet people like this, who are really that scared of the surveillance aspects that they don't own a mobile. You can't say that there's any one right reaction to this. This is all still very new. In some ways we are all learning together.’

‘What we haven't really had is that moment of critical distancing. We look the other way when Google is watching us, but when the government is watching us it makes our blood run cold, and in this last year, more and more people have had that moment of blood running cold.’

However, Pesce sees a growing tension developing between those involved in surveillance for commercial reasons and those conducting surveillance on people’s digital lives on the grounds of state security.

‘This is a big dilemma, because surveillance for Google has a strong commercial component and that places them at loggerheads with the government where there’s a security component … So there's a fundamental tension there between the needs of commerce and the needs of state security.’

‘You could imagine in some weird science fiction future that the NSA will be getting its data feed from Google. Oh actually, it turns out that the NSA was tapping Google's data feed, that's right! Or you could imagine a different science-fiction future where Google would be getting the NSA data feed in order to provide you with better products and services. Already half of that very weird science-fiction future has been proven to be the case. So you do have this situation where, although their aims are very different, it's possible for the state to subvert the aims of commerce for its own ends.’

There are clear signs of pushback from social networks and communications providers against being co-opted into an Orwellian security apparatus, however.

In June this year global communications company Vodafone went public with its disquiet over the encroaching nature of state surveillance. The organisation released what it called a Law Enforcement Disclosure Report accusing governments of all persuasions of pressuring online service providers into surveillance cooperation.

Speaking in London, Vodafone’s Group Privacy Officer, Stephen Deadman, called on governments to be more open and transparent in their dealings with telecommunications operators; he also confirmed long-held suspicions that some governments operated on a ‘direct access’ basis when dealing with telcos. That is, they’ve set-up covert systems which allow them to access the communications data of citizens without first seeking a court order or warrant, and without even notifying the telco in question when the harvesting of personal communications data is taking place.

For legal reasons, Vodafone refused to name those governments involved in such a practice, but said at least six were employing the direct access approach.

‘Technology companies don't want to be the proxy for government and then to take the blame for whatever surveillance is occurring, no matter how legitimate it is,’ says data specialist Rob Hillard, a managing partner with Deloitte Consulting Australia.

Hillard speaks of increasing levels of frustration among social networks over the restrictions they face which prevent them from informing their users/customers about the nature of government surveillance activity.

He argues that in order to fully understand the true drivers of the 21st century surveillance society, you have to focus not just on the tracking, but on what’s being tracked.

‘Data is all around us and we are constantly looking for ways to join it together. While we aren’t being monitored visually, we are increasingly giving away large amounts of personal information in terms of our location,’ he says ‘This isn't a new phenomenon. The thing that's changed is that the volume of information that we are putting out about ourselves has created new opportunities. Then the question is “where is the balance?”’

While describing himself as a digital optimist, Hillard admits feeling troubled by last year’s Snowden/NSA revelations and the implications they present for the future of personal privacy and freedom.

To better understand just how intermeshed our modern lives are with tracking and big data, Hillard recently set himself a unique task: to try and live for an entire day without leaving a data footprint. It was an exercise he dubbed his1984 challenge.

‘My life is so integrated with the digital world, and I really wanted to see whether it was possible for me to completely disconnect and still live a productive life,’ he says.

‘I very much benefit from the digital world in which I live, it makes me more productive. I believe that my data is used overwhelmingly for the purposes for which I want it to be used—to my benefit and to society's benefit. But I also want to know that it's in my control. So I set out to live for a day creating the smallest possible footprint that I could.’

Problems began to arise almost immediately: ‘One of the things I got caught out on was when I logged in to work. I initially avoided using services that touched the internet,’ he says. ‘But, of course, like most people, my PC is connected to a whole lot of cloud services and automatically just the act of logging on left a digital crumb of when I logged on and what I did.’

For Hillard, the clear message is that it isn’t all about government, that citizens need to develop a better understanding of their own digital behaviour and the importance of the data they generate.

‘Many of George Orwell’s fears are coming true,’ he argued in a recent blog post, before adding: ‘The cause is not an oppressive government but rather an eagerness by the population as a whole to move services onto new platforms without demanding the same level of protection that their previous custodians have provided for a couple of centuries or more.’

Read the full post here.

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