Big Brother is Watching

// Posted by on 05/26/2015 (10:49 AM)

In high school, I read George Orwell’s 1984 and remember thinking how awful it would be to live in a world where the people were constantly under surveillance and the government told them what to think. The book still holds a lot of significance for people and society today as the term “Big Brother is watching you” would pop up as a synonym for governmental power abuses related to civil liberties and surveillance.

Here is a link to several clips from the movie 1984:

First published in 1949, 1984 was considered a futuristic novel that theorized what the world would be like in the years to come. Unfortunately, many of Orwell’s ideas, particularly those related to modern governments wanting to control citizens and curtail freedoms, seem to be coming true, Big Brother is watching and collecting your data and storing it. Today’s technological possibilities of data collection, storage, and surveillance surely resemble what Orwell imagined.

Orwell describes Oceania’s surveillance as operating out in the open, since total power removed the need for deception and hiding. In the very different world depicted by Orwell, it was a routine for the government to open all letters in transit. Snowden describes similar government activities as “ubiquitous surveillance” and the government’s intent to make “every conversation and every form of behavior in the world known to them”. However, in our world the government is doing this in secrecy, the permissions are granted by the government and there is no judicial or public oversight.

The surveillance of American’s has rapidly increased since the 9/11 terrorists attacks and the resulting Patriot Act in 2001. The Patriot Act vastly expanded the government’s authority to spy on its own citizens and simultaneously reduced the checks and balances, like judicial oversight and public accountability, all under the pretext of protection. The expansion of the surveillance justified under the Patriot Act and the overall lack of clarification of what constitutes a threat, left the government unchecked and the public open to clear violations of privacy and the possible breach of the 4th Amendment.

When Edward Snowden revealed the extent to which the NSA was collecting data from cell phones and spying on Americans it was really not a big surprise to have the confirmation. It seems like a safe assumption that even if a person is not having a controversial conversation, the notion that digital messages would remain forever private or that they would not be stored or saved is probably naïve. Sacrificing personal privacy in favor of ensuring safety and protecting lives is not a foreign concept. Any time an individual boards a plane, in order to pass through security, privacy is sacrificed. This is done to safeguard our own lives as well as those of fellow passengers.

Honestly, it is easy to see the difficult position the government is in. Terrorism essentially does not have a nationality or even a religion, giving the extensive surveillance some validity. But are invasive programs such as Prism truly necessary? Or is the government overreaching its mark and operating unconstitutionally. General John Stark, an American Revolutionary War hero, coined the phrase “Live Free or Die: Death is not the worst of evils”. I wonder if an unchecked government would fall under the “worst of evils”.

Are our only choices to live free or die? There has got to be a balance, the government cannot be given free reign to expand their limited powers and reduce the natural rights of the American people. It seems clear that unchecked the government surveillance programs will increase and one can only hope that we don’t wake up one day living in George Orwell’s 1984 world.

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Rosatelli said...

Thanks, Jessie! You’ve had some interesting interpretations of the history of the internet thus far, and I’m curious to know how you see the complex issue of mass, digital surveillance fitting into this history. Is it inevitable? Does it fly in the face of the internet pioneers that we’ve been reading about in Turner? I noted in an earlier comment that Snowden has an EFF sticker on his laptop, that’s Brand’s Electronic Frontier Foundation. How do his actions fit into the historical arc of the internet? And, I wonder, what sort of forces will shape the rest of this decade. As we move through the next few weeks of this class, I think you will notice that the mantra is: we can do it as long as people continue not to notice. Our lives online are not driven around the NSA, financial markets, or the lifecycle of our devices. We are distracted by other things…

// 05/27/2015 at 8:54 pm