Orwell’s classic work Nineteen Eighty-Four imagined a dystopian future with Big Brother’s cameras installed in every home. As CCTV’s proliferated across Britain in the late 1990’s it seemed all he got wrong was putting the TV’s inside instead of outside our homes. Now the assault upon our privacy threatens to go way beyond George Orwell’s wildest imaginings.
The UK Parliament will soon be presented with a bill that would effectively plug Big Brother into all of our smartphones and personal computers, handing over virtual ownership of our devices. The Bill is a revived version of the so-called ‘Snooper’s Charter,” defeated by Liberal Democrats in 2013, that could give security services the legal right to delve into all your files, photos, messages and content, and to switch on the microphone or camera of your device without your knowledge. They would have the right to install software on your device that facilitates whatever they have in mind. Cameron would like to ban encrypted communication altogether, by anyone other than the state. We know from Edward Snowden’s revelations that some of this has been going on already, illicitly. New legislation could render such practices acceptable, and admissible.
Such invasion of privacy is abhorrent. Becoming appalled and outraged when members of the press tapped into the private phones of UK citizens was the correct response. When Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949, and for decades thereafter, the state required permission from a judge to read our mail or tap into our phone. It was a serious invasion of privacy and the judge would consider each request to make a yes or no decision. The majority of us, the vast majority I suggest, are not of the terrorist persuasion and in a free society there is no case for the vast majority to be subject to total surveillance.
At a time when Joseph Stalin epitomized communism, George Orwell was depicting a futuristic “ideal” Soviet world; a world in which only the state had “rights” since ours had been stripped away without us noticing it; a world constantly at war with shifting enemies. I could write a book about what is going on here and indeed, I already have, so I will just cut to the chase and illuminate the terrible places this proposed legislation can take us, places more frightening than the manufactured terrorism that is used to justify the sacrifice of our freedom.
It is about not needing to hide anything, NOT about having nothing to hide. We do not know who will be making the rules tomorrow but we do know from history, modern and ancient, that things can change unpredictably and sometimes rapidly. Although Hitler was elected by a healthy majority, less than a quarter of the population have tipped the balance of power in many elections. Military coups do happen, religious groups can gain power, fascist leaders have caught the pulse, the corporate grip still tightens, and 2008 nearly changed everything.
Perhaps the more power the state takes the less likely it will be to abuse that power since everything will be under absolute control and there will be no problems remaining to be addressed. History would, unfortunately, suggest otherwise. But whatever the consequences today, once in place the mechanism of total surveillance will be at the disposal of any faction coming into power and making the rules. They may, for the good of us all, the good of their masters, or because it is divine will, want to seek out vaccination opponents, pork eaters, environmental activists, homosexuals, people saying abusive stuff about government, people thinking ditto, users of banned sacred or recreational drugs, non-pork eaters, Sun-worshippers, homeopaths and heretics of any shade. Algorithms routinely cruising through all our Internet activity, shopping, texts, tweets, photos, Facebook, emails, diary entries and more will easily be able to flag up any miscreants. Could be a potential new revenue stream for the state, fining us for political incorrectness at home and swearing-in-front-of-kids kind of stuff?
Edward Snowden was so disturbed by what he was doing at the National Security Agency that he risked his life and livelihood to let us know – to warn the public of immoral and illegal activities being undertaken by the security services. Official outrage was such that Snowden rapidly became the world’s most wanted man. The US, in their determination to lock him away, grounded the private plane of the president of Bolivia, suspecting their fugitive was on board.
Snowden has revealed abuses on a scale that makes the UK press phone-hacking scandal look like a drop in the bucket of shame. So what has been government UK’s response to these damning revelations? Reform, review, investigation, prosecutions even? No, none of that. Instead, the home secretary is intent upon making that unacceptable behavior legal via the revived Communications Data Bill nicknamed The Snooper’s Charter. This would not just be one more nibble at our freedom by the current state, but a massive unending banquet for whoever rules Britain in the future. And there is no way today to determine what their tastes and table manners will be.
The right to personal privacy and individual freedom go hand in hand. No nation can claim to have one without the other.
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Government will be announcing their updated Communications Data Bill next week (first week of Nov), possibly renamed. Be prepared to deluge MP’s, sign petitions and do whatever you can to block this, their second attempt to undermine the foundations of our free society.
My contrarian idea is for a mass 24-hour offline demonstration, switching-off wi-fi, un-powering smart phones, disconnecting from the online world, Tweeting not, Facebook down, email free. What would happen? Hmmmm.
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That book I mentioned is titled The State Is Out Of Date, We Can Do It Better and here is a short excerpt from the final chapter.
In his satirical novel, 1984, George Orwell warned us of the possible future in an “ideal” Soviet world. Perhaps unwittingly, he came close to depicting the uniform society and permissible mindset to which many statesmen today would seem to aspire—albeit with a full refrigerator and high-speed Internet. It is now apparent, however, that it is beyond anybody’s powers to accomplish such control, be they saint or Stalin, and that what we, humanity, are suffering from today is the result of the fumbling and dangerous attempts of the state to achieve its dream version of George Orwell’s nightmare.