Stephen McGinty: What would Orwell think?

Former CIA employee Edward Snowdon has lifted the lid on US government surveillance and its Prism operation. Picture: AP
Former CIA employee Edward Snowdon has lifted the lid on US government surveillance and its Prism operation. Picture: AP
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The age of social networking has seen us throw away our privacy with little thought to how governments would use such information, writes Stephen McGinty

I wonder if George Orwell would have lived a few decades longer if he had access, in the wilds of Jura, to voice recognition software? Or even a touch-typing secretary for that matter. For it wasn’t really the writing of 1984, his great dystopian novel, that killed him but the effort of typing it up afterwards. Weak and sickly with tuberculosis but determined to produce a workable manuscript, Orwell would sit up in bed in the isolated farmhouse and laboriously type out page after page, his health weakening with every finished chapter.

Sadly, even if blessed with voice recognition software and a secretary, he would still be unlikely to have been around today to see his novel enjoy a 7,000 per cent boost in sales this week on the back of the revelations that the American government has a secret protocol “Prism” that allows it to access the massed digital archives of the world’s leading computer and telephone companies.

If faced with the revelations of Prism, what would George Orwell do? Well, first he would probably make himself a nice strong cup of tea. He did so love his cups of tea. Then he would roll himself a cigarette, puff away, then – flicking the ash of the newspaper – ponder the differences between 1984 and 2013, between the “Orwellian” future that he pressed into print at great cost to his already diminishing health and the world in which we live today.

My concern for those people who have suddenly rushed out to buy 1984 on the back of the current revelations of government snooping is that they will be disappointed by the lack of direct comparisons between Orwell’s dystopian future and our present. Is life on “Air Strip One”, as Britain has been rebranded in the dying embers of a nuclear holocaust in Orwell’s novel, really a prescient portrait of life in Britain and America today?

The “Big Brother” of Winston Smith was the authoritarian leader of a fascist government who may, or may not, have actually existed. The signs that declared “Big Brother is Watching You” were a warning to the cowed citizens of the nation that the government was monitoring everything that they do and was always on the lookout for those who commit “thought crimes”.

Anyone stepping out of line was whisked to the Ministry of Love for a brutal “re-education” that involved interrogation and torture and should a subject prove resistant, then it was off to Room 101, which housed each individual’s worst fear.

For Winston Smith, the hero whose name the author conjured up by fusing together that of the greatest Briton and the average everyman, what lurked within Room 101 was rats. It was only when a cage containing a hungry rat was strapped on to his face and he could feel its whiskers brush his cheek and lips that he finally cracked and betrayed his love, Julia, by screaming: “Do it to her, do it to her.”

I suppose the interested reader could draw a thin parallel between Winston Smith and Edward Snowdon, the American whistle-blower who leaked the existence of Prism to the Guardian and the Washington Post. Winston Smith was a minor party member who worked for the Ministry of Truth in a building modelled on BBC’s broadcasting house, where Orwell worked during the Second World War writing propaganda pieces for broadcast.

In the novel, Smith worked as a sub-editor, re-editing old newspapers so that the past reflected the ever-changing present and erasing allies turned “enemies” from old, sepia-tinted photographs. He was working on the inside and had information about the system his fellow citizens did not and he grew to hate the system and to hate “Big Brother”.

Edward Snowdon was a former CIA employee and IT specialist who took a job with a company that specialised in IT work for the American government and so worked on the inside at the very coal face of “data-mining”. He was working on the inside and had information about the system his fellow citizens did not and he, too, grew to hate the system and to the hate “Big Brother”. As he told the Guardian: “I do not want to live in a society that does these sorts of things … I do not want to live in world where everything I do and say is recorded.”

Winston Smith had a love affair with a fellow worker, Julia, a junior member of the Anti-Sex League, who presses a note into his hand one day at work which reads: “I Love You.” Disregarding the party’s prohibition on sex for pleasure, they sneak away to the countryside and later to a disused flat to consummate their affair. Both are later arrested, interrogated, tortured and what love they once had is left fractured and broken.

Edward Snowdon had a love affair with a “world travelling, pole-dancing superhero”, who – to make an educated guess based on her scantily-clad appearance and penchant for posting provocative self-portraits on her blog – was never a junior member of the Anti-Sex League. Since the sudden disappearance of Lindsay Mill’s boyfriend, she has consoled herself with cryptic comments on her blog: “My world has opened and closed all at once. Leaving me lost at sea without a compass … at the moment, all I can feel is alone.”

Winston Smith was arrested before he could flee. Edward Snowdon decided it would be safer to flee Hawaii for Hong Kong, which is now part of China, a repressive, dictatorial regime, but one which he considers free-er and safer than his home nation, which could, arguably, be an example of “double-think”.

So, if we set aside the lamentable absence of rats from the Edward Snowdon affair, what are the worthy parallels that we can draw from a close reading of 1984? In the grim future that Orwell imagined, (which, confusingly, is now our, rather, distant past) the authoritarian government wished to keep the citizens under constant surveillance, primarily via hidden microphones and the television in every room, with technology buttressed by those essential drones of all dictatorships throughout history, the covert spy and the willing informer.

Today we live in a society that, in the past 20 years, appears to have willingly thrown off the warm and comfortable blanket of privacy to dance naked under the powerful spotlights of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and has accepted, with barely a disinterested shrug, the fact that every element of our lives conducted through a computer, both purchases and pleasures, fights and feuds, love affairs and arguments is recorded, analysed and stored, principally for later commercial exploitation by multinational companies whose methods will, one hopes, exclude blackmail, but who is to tell what the future will hold?

The current scandal over Prism has thrown a welcome bucket of cold water over our notions of privacy. We’ve accepted the erosion of privacy because it has come at the behest of private companies offering fun goodies and online games. We accepted the little Google smart cars with their multi-coloured logo and periscope video cameras because its, well, Google, but how would we have reacted if it was government men in black suits and shades driving the streets documenting everything?

If it was the director of the CIA who announced that privacy was unimportant and that people were happy to give it up, instead of a 28-year-old billionaire in a hooded top, would we be so keen to sign up to Facebook? No.

Yet, the fact is now that society has evolved to the point where surveillance has never been simpler and citizens willingly participate in documenting their own lives, why would governments not seek to utilise this sea of information in an attempt to keep us safe?

I know others will argue that governments are selfishly dedicated to little more than their own survival and that there are plenty of Room 101s in Guantanamo Bay or the secret CIA “black” detention centres scattered around the globe, and how safe can they make us feel when they embark on reckless foreign policy adventures such as Iraq and Afghanistan, but do I believe they wish to do us harm? No. Harm, however, may well yet be a by-product of such government snooping.

It is curious to think what Orwell would make of this brave new world in which we live. A veteran of the Spanish Civil War, a correspondent during the Second World War and a critic of Stalin’s Russia, he could recognise a dictatorship when he saw one and he also knew that governments need, at times, to operate silently and in the dark.

As he once wrote, we sleep safer in our beds because “rough men walk in the night prepared to do violence in our name”. Does this not apply to the silent snoopers in the digital realm?