Snowden’s warning: a look through the telescreen

1984 in 2014?By

“A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all.”

So said Edward Snowden in a recent recorded message designed to alert the public to the government-regulated system of mass surveillance that he helped to expose and asking explicitly for such “spying” to end. His warning begins by referencing 1984, a novel by Eric Arthur Blair (pen name George Orwell) which can be seen as a vision of the chilling control enforced by a totalitarian government, including their ubiquitous surveillance.

But, he says, the spying technologies in 1984 are “nothing compared to what we have available today”. Let’s take a closer look. Do present governments have surveillance technologies at their disposal as powerful as those used by Big Brother?

The most prominent contraption in the novel, the telescreen, is unquestionably realisable today. Doubling as televisions and security cameras, telescreens are large screens attached to the wall, constantly monitoring citizens on behalf of the Thought Police while broadcasting propaganda in non-proletarian houses in Orwell’s dystopian world. They also allow for two-way communication, although this is not their main purpose. In reality, of course, both the televising and video-taking aspect have been available and commonplace in developed countries for decades, though to be the “oblong metal plaque” that Orwell envisioned, it would require the more modern flat-screen LCD or plasma display variety, not the bulky cathode ray tube.

Do present governments have surveillance technologies at their disposal as powerful as those used by Big Brother?

A combination of the two would require a way to incorporate a camera and sensitive microphone able to detect a heartbeat into a thin screen. Though expensive to build, technological companies could certainly create a real-life telescreen – the only difficultly being the ultra thin dimensions.

However, recalling Snowden’s caution, perhaps there are screens more threatening than the telescreen residing in our homes already. There is no Orwellian computer to draw direct parallels to – presumably Ingsoc would have seen their capacity for granting self-expression and aiding rebellion thus not permitted them to be created by stifling relevant scientific advances. Yet, in the real world most people in developed nations own at least one computer or device that can connect to the internet. Our cyber-existence could be as invigilated as the physical existence of characters in 1984 – supplying the eavesdropper, whether the government or a hacker, with countless information about our lives.

On social media sites such as Facebook information such as our likes, location, beliefs and friendships are often explicitly listed, our thoughts and reflections recorded, our experiences disseminated in shared photographs and still more and more information about us is becoming digitised. Some of the latest apps measure your weight, manage your music tracks, determine your sleep cycle and analyse it – all with the option to share the information on social media.

On social media sites such as Facebook information such as our likes, location, beliefs and friendships are often explicitly listed

Significantly, the speakwrite is a device which converts speech into text in Orwell’s 1984 – a process which could, and has, become an authentic app. Technologically, the speakwrite is not quite a reality. With the great variety in the articulation and pronunciation of words and the use of colloquialismsabsent from the dictionary, transcribing speech is no easy task even prior to consideration of the myriad languages spoken around the world to be processed. In Winston Smith’s world, there is only one language called Newspeak and it is deliberately greatly condensed, with antonyms and synonyms removed. If the same was true of reality, it is likely that a near-perfect voice recognition app could be made in the very near future.

Plus, it is not just information that we knowingly add to the internet that is documented there, freely available for the opportunist to access. Countless websites hold data about us, for instance there are directories of our past addresses sourced from electoral roles. Additionally, internet service providers keep a log of the websites we access and keep these details for up to a year. True privacy in cyberspace is almost impossible.

What technology is out there, the internet aside? Our mobile phones can be used to pinpoint our location to within a few metres using GPS or a process called triangulation. Companies like taxi firms already track the routes of their vehicles but soon privately-owned vehicles may also be tracked, using techniques including automatic number-plate recognition – a sinister step up from the odd speed camera. In 1984, there is no mention of mobile-like devices (surely not permitted by Ingsoc for the same reason as computers) or elaboration on any monitoring of the transport in Airstrip One.

However, it does not seem that Orwell’s vision stretched as far as to include technology that could locate a person in the absence of a telescreen; Winston manages to remain largely unmonitored while in the prole district. The real Big Brother, then, is even more powerful than the fictional one in this respect. He really can see you all the time, providing you carry your smartphone.

The real Big Brother, then, is even more powerful than the fictional one

Then there is the most evasive technique of all for removing our privacy: extracting our thoughts and memories. “Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimetres inside your skull” Winston observes in the novel. In this day and age, there are even technologies (albeit in the development stage) that can literally read our minds. High-resolution MRI, computer modelling and shape recognition software have been combined to determine the image that a person is looking at, for instance.

The only way in which information could be extracted from a person’s brain in 1984 was through torture – forcing the person to divulge; Winston is shocked electrically and exposed to his greatest fear in Room 101. Of course, there is torture going on in our world, but we may be heading towards a future where such extremes are not even needed, with technology capable of deciphering the mind directly.

It appears that Snowden was correct; although the Orwellian tools of surveillance are daunting, all are capable of being created today, and moreover there are several powerful technologies in use or in development that Orwell didn’t envisage. The problem, then, lies with government to ensure that these technologies are used responsibly, finding the delicate balance of monitoring relevant information while respecting the privacy, a basic human right, of every individual.

Image: Frerk Meyer

One thought on “Snowden’s warning: a look through the telescreen

  • Governments “politicians” by their very human nature are paranoid, and want to know everything they can, even when regulated by laws that protect us they will try to “circumvent” those restrictions, either outright illegally or through semantic manipulations etc. What is happening now is that they are writing (or unwriting) the law to suit what they want to be able to do, deregulating themselves. It’s as if they have elevated the law to be a basis of ethical rights of government, at least when it suits them to do so.


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