George Orwell, in his iconic dystopian novel ‘1984’, predicted a totalitarian state in which an omnipresent surveillance system controlled by the Thought Police (‘always the eyes watching you’) meant that ‘nothing was your own except the few cubic centimetres inside your skull.’
Telescreens, which acted simultaneously as televisions and security cameras, watched over everywhere and ‘the smallest thing could give you away… anything that carried with it the suggestion of abnormality, of having something to hide.’ How close are we to a similar state of affairs in today’s modern world?
Edward Snowden’s recent revelations about the secretive US National Security Agency’s far-reaching surveillance programme, including claims of spying on the US’s European allies ahead of Transatlantic Free Trade Area (TAFTA) negotiations, have sparked a debate on the balance between privacy and security. The former security contractor has now controversially been granted one year’s asylum in Russia, but whatever you think of him, have the documents revealed a side to surveillance you are still comfortable with?
It may not come as a surprise to you that the NSA’s PRISM project gives them access to the private data (Facebook messages, email, web searches) of millions of citizens through major technology companies including Google and Intel, most of which hold vast amounts of information on many of us. His argument is that the infrastructure of this mass surveillance should not be built behind closed doors, beyond public scrutiny. He argues the authorities should be held fully accountable for their actions and scrutinised much more than at present. There is nothing concrete yet to suggest that the NSA has indeed broken the law with this, but are those laws too weak, or have they been misused?
The authorities can even access so-called ‘meta-data’ from telephone activity; they know who, when, and for how long people call each other, and through the triangulation of signal masts they can also pinpoint locations in real-time, all through smartphones. This is done under the Patriot Act, which allows the spies to ask companies for access to records that are ‘relevant’ (a hugely subjective and malleable term) to national-security investigations. The secret courts (e.g. FISA, set up under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in 2007) that allow such requests for data from the government are not open to challenges from the public, and so it risks becoming, if it isn’t already, a sham due process.
This is undoubtedly a vital weapon against crime; being able to discover criminal networks and the location of suspects is invaluable to security services, but when this is available in an instant against all of us, does it impinge on our rights? The spooks might argue that if we have nothing to hide then why should we mind being surveyed, especially if the process helps protect us all? Surely we have a fundamental right to personal privacy, and unbridled state-snooping is in danger of violating this.
This points to a balance between liberty and security that must be paramount in a modern nation’s thinking. Preventing terrorist attacks like 9/11 and the Boston Marathon Bombing has to be the utmost priority of any nation state – protecting its citizens – but where do we draw the line in terms of infringements of civil rights? The NYPD is now using an enhanced surveillance system based on London’s CCTV network which allows them to watch, in real time, tens of thousands of CCTV feeds from around the city. They claim that this is for counter-terrorism purposes, and that this is an invaluable tool in fighting potential plots, but how much of a danger does a system which can follow you around the city, tracking your movements in real time, pose to our fundamental rights?
Closer to home, as I’m sure you are aware, we British citizens are the most watched; we have the highest ratio of CCTV cameras to people in the world. Whether you think this is a necessary evil or a violation of our rights, it is undeniable that this vast system helps prevent and solve crimes. Knowing the police can watch you every step of the way is clearly a huge deterrent for criminals, and surely helps to prevent many crimes, but when it is the same for us innocent citizens, should we not begin to question the suitability of such a system?
There is yet more evidence of shocking actions by our own government surveying its populace: it has also been shown that UK telecoms firms, including BT and Vodafone, were ‘secretly collaborating with GCHQ to intercept the vast majority of all internet traffic entering the country’, by tapping into the fibre-optic cables entering the country.
Should we be questioning the blatant and widespread interception of private data by our government and its allies, despite its supposed benefits? Do we have an exclusive property right over our data, or at least for it not to be collected and analysed by the state? This may already be happening – according to the Economist, ‘for the first time since 2004 fewer Americans say that the Government should boost security than say it has gone too far in restricting civil liberties’, – statements made even in light of the Boston bombings.
I take it as a given that every democracy needs to keep impingements on individual liberties in check, and to hold its agencies to account in every facet of their activities. Even if no line has been crossed, the public must never slip in to an unquestioning state; our priority must be to keep those in power in check, and to stand up for our individual liberty, to prevent the Orwellian prediction becoming reality. In an age where we produce more personal data than ever before, and few of us think about what is happening to it all, should we be taking a closer look at who is looking at us?
Cameron Ormesher is Head Boy of Altrincham Grammar School for Boys.