Big Brother is Watching

“The voice came from an oblong metal plaque like a dulled mirror which formed part of the surface of the right-hand wall. The instrument (the telescreen, it was called) could be dimmed, but there was no way of shutting it off completely. The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it; moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard. There was, of course, no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment.”

This is an excerpt from the famed dystopian novel 1984 by George Orwell. In this book, which is dubbed as one of the most influential in the past century, Orwell talks about Winston Smith, a dutiful servant of the state who starts having second thoughts about the system that surrounds him. Constant surveillance from the telescreens, secret mics everywhere, posters full of propaganda, and when all those fail, fellow citizens waiting to rat you out without a moment of hesitation. 

Winston, like everyone else in the novel, was living in a world where he was allowed a private moment in only the most superficial meaning of the word. What he wasn’t allowed to have, however, was a private thought. As those thoughts establish a more menacing presence in his head, Winston is flooded with the overwhelming realization that the world in which he lives is barely livable. Everything in society was geared to notice even the smallest signs of unlawfulness, even a “thought-crime.” It was a dystopia, well and truly. Published in 1949, one would imagine that this novel would bear more resemblance to those times than ours - to the regimes of Stalin or Mussolini, and it certainly does. The outright control of masses, the dictatorial desire to always remain at war, the unwavering expectation for obedience. Yet, the sales of 1984 have skyrocketed in recent times. Of course, “certain” countries ban its sale, and I will let you guess which those are. But, really, why? Why have the sales skyrocketed recently?

Has the time Orwell really spoke of truly arrived? 

Perhaps the most attention wide-spread surveillance has gotten in recent memory are the Snowden leaks of 2013. Edward Snowden, an NSA computer security consultant, had leaked files showing the NSA largely overreached and abused its powers - powers that were granted in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. Instead of just asking for intel on criminal suspects, investigations revealed the NSA asked giant tech companies for data on “by-standers” - people, for example, who called people who called people who called the suspect. For every “target” that the NSA looked into, they swept up data on 10 by-standers, a lot of whom were citizens of the United States. 

The NSA was also revealed to have collected data about the telephone records of millions of American customers from the company Verizon. Defenders argued that it wasn’t private information, just the type of information that was found in someone’s telephone bill - you know, how many calls were made, when the calls were made. This type of data is often known as metadata, or data about the data. Instead of recording the contents of a phone conversation, these records simply stored details about the phone call, and that may seem “useless” to some. But, here’s the thing. If it were useless, they would not be expending resources trying to collect it. This type of data can be used to create a very detailed profile of someone, just like scrolling down someone's Facebook page. 

There’s also the Pegasus program that has caught the eye of the media lately. A state of the art spyware developed by an Israeli group that can hack into even the latest mobile OSs. Pegasus infects target phones using a number of vulnerabilities instead of attacking just one. Some of Pegasuses hacks are zero-click, meaning they require no interaction from the user. It can allegedly render Whatsapp’s now famous end-to-end encryption completely useless. The group that built this spyware claims it was built to help “combat terror and crime.” Yet, the most notable use of this spyware was in 2019, when the Saudi Government used it to hack into the phone of the journalist Jamal Khasoggi, who they eventually murdered. It was also the spyware used to hack into Jeff Bezos’ phone. In fact, it was formally discovered in 2016 when a sketchy link was sent to human rights activists, who, instead of opening the link, sent it to investigators. Upon retrospective analysis, it is thought to have existed since 2013. 

Upon the release of the news about widespread and unconstitutional use of facial recognition technology by different companies across different countries, people sometimes tried to confuse the cameras by wearing sweaters with patterns designed to fool the machine learning programs. Little did they know that facial recognition has gotten so good, they don’t even need to see your face. This new technology, thought to have been developed in China, apparently can identify people based on the way they walk. It takes up to 50 different parameters that can be used to distinguish your walk and allow the computers to identify people from as far as 50 meters away. You would have guessed it by now. This technology, too, is being developed with the promise of preventing crime, but how it is actually used is anyone’s guess at this point. These are just some of the many surveillance programs that are not just being developed, but being marketed and used actively around the world. 

At least in 1984, Winston was fully aware of all the programs the state had to offer. Today, we don’t even know most of it. Yes, Snowden brought a revelation of documents in terms of the spying programs, but that’s just one facet of the larger landscape. Despite the outcry from those damning reports, change has been hard to come by; we constantly see news of surveillance programs cracking down on the civil liberties of its own citizens, even tech companies forced to bow their heads to any and all requests for data, and some that do so willingly. If you don’t even know who and what is watching which part of your life, how can you even decide what to do about it? 

"If you look back at the forecasts of surveillance by George Orwell. Well... it turns out that he was an optimist." - Mikko Hypponen

Really, it's not really the act of being watched that’s particularly disturbing. Rather, it’s the paranoia of feeling like you’re being watched when you can neither prove it to be true nor false. 

“If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.” - they say. However, a government that cares today about criminals may tomorrow care more about their political adversaries. A government that cares today about political adversaries may tomorrow care about academics.

The list goes on and on. 

That being said, it’s not all doom and gloom. The thing with the economy as it currently stands, at least in much of the western world, is that the act of profit making can really be used to weaponize any interests - the good and the bad. In this instance, after the general realization of what was going on, people consciously started choosing products that emphasize privacy. Now, whether those privacy privileges are actually able to protect us is another question altogether, but at the very least, privacy has successfully been converted from a human right to a desirable feature. Apple is one of the first companies to take that mantle in the tech industry, releasing a slew of privacy features that almost get as much stage-time as a new processor or camera.
It’s also worth noting the situations in which these abusive powers are granted in the first place. They generally take place after a terrorist attack, at a time when people are more likely to be outraged and emotional. That’s when there is little to no opposition to such requests for power. The encroaches on our civil liberties generally don’t take place overnight. They take place in slow, almost indistinguishable strides. That is what 1984 is really talking about: to give the reader the ability to extrapolate into the future when seemingly innocent requests for information slowly turn into widespread surveillance. 

These surveillance programs almost never have oversight or chaperoning. Unless, of course, a whistleblower decided to leak it all. Take Facebook’s algorithms for example. Innocent requests for data to make the platform more profitable in exchange for the option to keep Facebook “free” for everyone. A lot of the privileges that we have today surrounding our choice to delete all our data and to control how it's shared is the result, but sometimes it seems to go a bit far.

How often do you have a private conversation about a topic on messenger only to end up being recommended services about that topic? I am not talking about your Google searches or your public posts, these are “private” messages. Of course, the irony is in the fact that even Facebook’s own CEO probably doesn't feel very safe about the widespread surveillance in our world. This is a picture of Mark Zuckerburg taken a few years ago which shows him at a desk with what appears to be his own laptop. Mark has both the webcam and the mic of his laptop taped up. It’s something that has become common practice across users of technology, most notable after the release of the Snowden files. But if Mark Zuckerburg doesn’t feel safe in his own office, a person who likely has executive access to some of the deepest darkest secrets of our world's technology, what does that say about all of us? 

Now you might say, well, nobody’s forced to use any of these services. Well, no, not technically. But, realistically, does anyone really have a choice? The everyday Joe has to join Facebook because his colleagues are all on it. He has to join Instagram to maintain a functioning social life. Even the people that claim to not use social media, use it for their businesses. The idea is the same. And with each additional user, the shared utility of these platforms rises and with that rises the inclination to join and reveal more and more about our private lives.

There’s also an element of “thought”, or lack thereof in all of these platforms. And that was another hallmark of 1984: ridding the masses of any ability, or even desire, for critical thought. The things that dominate on social media are almost exclusively devoid of any critical thought.

All platforms are pushing for the shortest, most click-baity things they can find to give people that addictive surge of dopamine, and then keep them on a short leash. Instagram is also routinely under scrutiny for its algorithms. A research study about its algorithms was stopped right in its tracks with the threat of legal action, to which the smaller research institution had to oblige. 

It’s no wonder that the comparison with 1984 really falls apart in today’s time. Today everyone has a television not because they were forced to have it, but because they go out and buy it themselves. And what people want is not to turn it off, but to keep it on as long as possible. 

Of course, we shouldn’t get too ahead of ourselves. The fact of the matter is you and I can have that discussion, we can at least debate whether it is right or wrong. Whether anything is done about it in the end is another topic altogether, but at least the conversation can take place. That in itself is a hopeful sign that our world is not quite there yet. 

In truth, despite a resemblance that is hard to overlook, Orwell is not speaking of our time - or anytime in specific. He is talking about the innate desire of those in power to remain in power, and almost equally, an innate desire to rebel against that - it’s a tug-of-war which will remain timeless, just like his book. As long as we know about it, and are able to talk about it, we have a fighting chance. So go ahead, go ahead and think. That’s not a thought crime… yet. 

- MA, MM