Orwell Revisited: Privacy in the Age of Surveillance (John W. Whitehead)
Tuesday June 18th, 2013
There’s a reason George Orwell’s 1984 is a predominant theme in my new book A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State (available now on Amazon.com and in stores on June 25). It’s the same reason Orwell’s dystopian thriller about a futuristic surveillance society has skyrocketed to the top of book charts in the wake of recent revelations by former CIA employee and National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden that the nefarious spy agency is collecting the telephone records of millions of Verizon customers, with the complete blessing of the Obama administration.
Orwell understood what many Americans, caught up in their partisan flag-waving, are still struggling to come to terms with: that there is no such thing as a government organized for the good of the people – even the best intentions among those in government inevitably give way to the desire to maintain power and control at all costs.
The fact that the U.S. government now has at its disposal a technological arsenal so sophisticated and invasive as to render any constitutional protections null and void, and these technologies are being used by the government to invade the privacy of the American people should not come as a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention over the past decade.
Spearheaded by the NSA, which has shown itself to care little for constitutional limits or privacy, the “security/industrial complex” – a marriage of government, military and corporate interests aimed at keeping Americans under constant surveillance – has come to dominate our government and our lives. At three times the size of the CIA, constituting one third of the intelligence budget and with its own global spy network to boot, the NSA has a long history of spying on Americans, whether or not it has always had the authorization to do so.
What many fail to realize, however, is that the government is not operating alone. It cannot. It requires an accomplice. Thus, the increasingly complex security needs of our massive federal government, especially in the areas of defense, surveillance and data management, have been met within the corporate sector, which has shown itself to be a powerful ally that both depends on and feeds the growth of governmental bureaucracy. For example, USA Today reports that five years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the homeland security business was booming to such an extent that it eclipsed mature enterprises like movie-making and the music industry in annual revenue. This security spending by the government to private corporations is forecast to exceed $1 trillion in the near future.
We have, so to speak, gone from being a nation where privacy is king to one where nothing is safe from the prying eyes of government. In search of terrorists hiding amongst us--the proverbial “needle in a haystack,” as one official termed it--the government has taken to monitoring all aspects of our lives, from cell phone calls and emails to Internet activity and credit card transactions. Much of this data is being fed through fusion centers across the country. These are state and regional intelligence centers that collect data on you.
Wherever you go and whatever you do, you are now being watched--especially if you leave behind an electronic footprint. When you use your cell phone, you leave a record of when the call was placed, who you called, how long it lasted and even where you were at the time. When you use your ATM card, you leave a record of where and when you used the card. There is even a video camera at most locations. When you drive a car enabled with GPS, you can be tracked by satellite. And all of this once-private information about your consumer habits, your whereabouts and your activities is now being fed to the U.S. government.
As I document in A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, the government has nearly inexhaustible resources when it comes to tracking our movements, from electronic wiretapping devices, traffic cameras and biometrics to radio-frequency identification cards, satellites and Internet surveillance.
In such a climate, everyone is a suspect. And you’re guilty until you can prove yourself innocent. To underscore this shift in how the government now views its citizens, just before leaving office, President Bush granted the FBI wide-ranging authority to investigate individuals or groups, regardless of whether they are suspected of criminal activity.
Total Internet surveillance is merely the next logical step in the government’s attempts to predict and, more importantly, control the populace--and it’s not as far-fetched as you might think. For example, the NSA is now designing an artificial intelligence system that is designed to anticipate your every move. In a nutshell, the NSA will feed vast amounts of the information it collects to a computer system known as Aquaint (the acronym stands for Advanced QUestion Answering for INTelligence), which the computer can then use to detect patterns and predict behavior.
No information is sacred or spared. Everything from cell phone recordings and logs, to emails, to text messages, to personal information posted on social networking sites, to credit card statements, to library circulation records, to credit card histories, etc., is collected by the NSA. One NSA researcher actually quit the Aquaint program, “citing concerns over the dangers in placing such a powerful weapon in the hands of a top-secret agency with little accountability.”
Thus, what we are witnessing, in the so-called name of security and efficiency, is the creation of a new class system comprised of the watched (average Americans such as you and me) and the watchers (government bureaucrats, technicians and private corporations).
Clearly, the age of privacy in America is coming to a close. If Orwell’s predictions prove true, what follows will be even worse. “If you want a picture of the future,” he forewarned, “imagine a boot stamping on a human face – for ever.”
Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. He is the author of A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State and The Change Manifesto (Sourcebooks).