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Similarities in the Surveillance Presented in Orwell’s "1984" Compared to the Present Day and Beyond

"1984" by George Orwell

"1984" by George Orwell

A Fictional Surveillance State

In the novel 1984, George Orwell sets up a world whose inhabitants are constantly under surveillance by the government. This constant surveillance, manipulation, and control are symbolized through the idea of “Big Brother,” and the phrase, “Big Brother is watching you,” is repeated throughout the novel. The slogan is shown to be displayed everywhere as a method of reminding the citizens they are always being observed and scrutinized.

In the real world, the reference to "Big Brother," has come to represent the abuse of government power, especially in relation to civil liberties and rights, and is often used to refer to instances of mass surveillance of the population. As Orwell predicted, people have increasingly given up their personal freedoms, and right to privacy, passively allowing governmental surveillance to grow. In the novel 1984, this willingness to surrender privacy is due to fear.

In today’s high-tech era, however, much of this loss of privacy has come about through perceived benefits provided by technological advances. These include the ability to social network on online platforms from home, instant access to information on almost any topic through the internet, and the increased ease of communication and convenience such technology has provided. While in both the book and today’s society, it seems that the Government has revoked former rights to privacy, the reality is that in both cases it is the citizens that have allowed it to happen.

In the novel 1984, Orwell creates a dystopian society in which citizens do what the government commands. They follow the rules due to fear of discovery and subsequent punishment. This fear results from the knowledge that the government has systems in place to ensure they know what citizens are doing at all times. Due to the awareness they are always watched, people learn to even modify their thinking to avoid thoughts that would be considered in opposition to the government. This comes about through the added threat of the “Thought Police” who are also always watching through the use of telescreens which are never allowed to be turned off.

These telescreens are used to project messages as well as to watch the citizens. People learn to control their expressions and often maintain a blank face as they are unsure what expression or gesture would be considered indicative of problematic or subversive thoughts. The Thought Police look for even the most subtle of signs such as a twitch or eye tick which they are likely to conclude is a sign that someone may be thinking “illegal” thoughts.

Telescreens are put in private residences and public locations, lining every hallway and street. These screens aren’t the only means the government has of watching the people. While a telescreen may not be in view, one cannot be certain their voice is not being picked up on a hidden microphone, or that a helicopter used to spy out those who break the law may not suddenly appear above them. In this society. even a child is to be feared as they are trained and rewarded for turning in parents and other adults.

Although this surveillance creates anxiety and all but eliminates privacy, no one attempts to overthrow the system. This is because they are willing to relinquish the right to think, speak and act as they choose in exchange for perceived safety from the unending war allegedly being fought. Their fear is escalated by the frightening facts reported by the Government. Additionally, though there is a history of peaceful relations with the countries with whom Oceania is supposedly at war, the people do not know this due to the government’s policy of re-writing the past and the present whenever necessary to suit their needs.


The Concept of Big Brother

The opening pages of the novel present two main characters: the protagonist, Winston, and the antagonist, Big Brother. Winston, a 39-year-old man, is coming home from work. As he heads for his apartment, we are told that on each landing is a poster of a large face of a man about 45-year old with a black mustache and strong, handsome features. The appearance of this face, simply referred to as Big Brother, is described to impart the sense of an imposing presence found in every area of society. The image establishes the perception of an eye that sees all. The idea that this unnamed individual is always watching from the shadows establishes the social order of the society whose members have learned better than to utter anything that might be construed as negatively related to Big Brother and The Party, which is the ruling upper class.

Orwell’s first reference to “Big Brother” is found in the third paragraph of the first chapter of 1984. He writes:

“The flat was seven flights up, and Winston, who was thirty-nine and had a varicose ulcer above his right ankle, went slowly, resting several times on the way. On each landing, opposite the lift shaft, the poster with the enormous face gazed from the wall. It was one of those pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you when you move. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption read” (3).

Thus, the concept of constant surveillance is presented at the very beginning of the book.

Although seemingly overly intrusive, the people tolerate this constant surveillance deeming it justified in a world that is unsafe due to the potential horrors of war. The perception that the government is actively preventing the enemy from taking over the country and abusing its citizens has led to the willing forfeit of individual rights. The author writes, "The consciousness of being at war, and therefore in danger, makes the handing-over of all power to a small caste seem the natural, unavoidable condition of survival (192).

Throughout the book, this phrase about Big Brother is seen to appear on posters and telescreens not just as a political slogan but as a real-life actuality. Big Brother in this story is the supreme authority of a totalitarian state called Oceania. He is the head of “the Party” which has complete control over the inhabitants to the extent they even control peoples' thoughts by inducing the belief they are able to know what a citizen thinks through observation of body language and facial expression.

It's not just Big Brother who may be watching you.

It's not just Big Brother who may be watching you.

How Close are We to Orwell's Vision of a Future of Surveillance?

There has been much discussion in recent years as to the similarities between what Orwell predicted in his novel in 1949, thirty-five years before the year referred to in the title. Many have said that the types of surveillance seen in the book have come to exist with the advent of modern technological inventions while others have said that the types of surveillance seen today far surpass those presented in the novel. Further discussion has centered on the differentiation of the concepts of care, the stated goal of such surveillance by governmental entities, and coercion.

According to the American Civil Liberties Organization, (ACLU), the government in this country is an increasing threat to peoples’ privacy from growing surveillance technological advantage which is said by them to be justified in order to ensure national security. Governmental agencies such as the National Security Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Homeland Security, and state and local law enforcement agencies are known to intrude upon the private telecommunications of innocent inhabitants, collect a huge amount of data regarding who people call, and create databases of what they consider suspicious activities, based on the unclear criteria.

The ACLU goes on to say that while the collection of this private information by the government is in itself an unacceptable invasion of privacy, how they use the information is even more problematic to the point of abuse. Otherwise, harmless data gets placed on a variety of watch lists, with harsh consequences. Innocent individuals are prevented from boarding planes, are unable to obtain certain types of jobs, have their bank accounts frozen, and find themselves repeatedly questioned by authorities without knowing why. Once the government has such information, it can widely share it and retain it indefinitely (American Civil Liberties Organization).

The rules regarding who has access to this surveillance information and how it can be used have changed and changed again in secret without the public ever becoming aware. The government can also use it to justify changing rules or even breaking laws as it did after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. For example, after 9/11 surveillance data were used to indicate potential terrorists so that the CIA could capture them and obtain information that would prevent other terrorist attacks. Despite it being against international law and the law of the U.S. to torture anyone for any purpose (Restatement of the Law Third), the CIA was known to have used torture to obtain information and confessions from a number of individuals after 9/11. Furthermore, of 119 people held in custody and tortured by the C.I.A. following 9/11, 26 were subsequently found to be innocent. These included cases of mistaken identity, people held due to a false confession of two people erroneously tied to Al Qaeda as well as someone who was mentally retarded and held just to pressure a family member into confessing.

These cases sound like they could come directly out of the novel 1984 as the torture of the main character Winston, and another character he was involved with, Julia, are clearly detailed in the book. One example of such a narrative that describes the severity of the torture inflicted against Winston can be found on page 244. It says,

"There were times when it went on and on until the cruel, wicked, unforgivable thing seemed to him not that the guards continued to beat him but that he could not force himself into losing consciousness." (244)

Surveillance today does seem to go beyond what Orwell presented in his novel. For example, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has warned of a secretive surveillance tool being used by the FBI which acts as a face cellular tower. These devices, called Stingrays, lets the government search large geographical areas for a particular cell phone signal. In the process, however, the devices collect information on thousands of other cell phone signals belonging to unassociated people, which happen to also be located in the same area. More recently local law enforcement personnel have used the device in order to avoid limitations provided in the Constitution including the requirement for the issuance of individualized warrants (Cox).

Government Stingray Technology

Government Stingray Technology

Participatory Surveillance

Participatory Surveillance

Participatory Surveillance

While in the novel 1984 surveillance of the population is presented as something the government puts into place to control society for the governments benefit, the reality in today’s world is that data mining of social network pages, email, location information, individual search histories and databases that include information of interrelated people goes beyond governmental involvement. Termed participatory surveillance, individuals using sites such as Facebook voluntarily provide personal information about themselves in a profile and knowingly give permission for other sites to access their profiles in order to gain access to news, weather, and other information or even to be able to play games online. Most social networking sites ask their users to provide these kinds of details. This information commonly appears in casual digital conversations within given social networking communication platforms. Consequently, personal information about people is not something necessarily hidden that must be uncovered or retrieved using exotic technologies, human agents, or advanced bugging equipment. People themselves are knowingly publishing this information on public websites accessible by almost anyone with internet access and often available without cost.

Additionally, the devices that gather information about others that may subsequently be used for covert surveillance today are not relegated to the government alone, as presented in the novel 1984. Anyone, including children, who owns a cell phone, tablet, or notebook computer generally has access to still and video cameras, microphones used for recording purposes, and other technologies used to capture images and visual and audio footage included as part of these types of mobile technology platforms. People routinely take pictures and record videos of people who are aware or unaware that they are being recorded, uploading the information in order to share it with what is often a large social network. Once online, these images can be re-shared indefinitely and thus, are available publicly to practically anyone with a Facebook or other social networking free membership. They can also be edited and re-edited to inaccurately represent the individual and the individual’s actions and presence in a variety of locations. This data along with that provided by public records or anything that an individual has listed for any purpose online is also collected by pay-for-information sites. These sites then summarize the information obtained and provide reports with the resulting details which may or may not be accurate for use to individuals who may be checking on people they date, or potential roommates, and to determine if possible sexual offenders may live nearby. While the public is made aware of the use of their personal data for legitimate and abusive purposes, it does not stop people from continuing to enter personal information in online forms and publicly share information about themselves and others.

Although this information may lead to increased convenience such as through targeted ads and local search results, public sharing has led to such long-lasting abuses as identity theft. Identity theft involves the false assumption of another individual's identity through the use of their readily available personal information in order to gain access to bank accounts, credit cards, and other financial information usually for financial benefit. Some people whose identity has been stolen have become bankrupt, had criminal charges made against them, and the victim hours spent in repairing the damage from the theft as well as the inability to clear negative records have resulted in additional long-term distress and other negative outcomes.

The Future Begins Now

What does the future hold? Consider the government-approved group that hacks computers, the Tailored Access Operations group (TAO) inside the NSA. What we know is that the TAO gains access to computers remotely, using programs with fabulous secret names like QUANTUMINSERT and FOXACID. We also know that TAO has created specialized software to hack into all manner of electronic information devices including computers, routers, servers, and smartphones and that its agents often install data collection implants into this type of equipment by intercepting its signals and infecting it while in transit. It has been estimated that TAO has successfully hacked into, and is currently extracting information from, over 80,000 computers worldwide. According to the Chief of TAO, who has spoken publicly on this program, there are things you can do to limit their ability to hack your systems. He mentioned limiting access to important or private information only to those who absolutely need it, not lightening security ever even temporarily, and making sure to shore up any cracks in your security no matter how tiny they may seem. This being said he implied that while this would make his job more difficult it would not prevent you from ultimately being hacked. He also mentioned zero-day exploits, flaws in programs or systems that have yet to be discovered and are therefore vulnerable to exploitation. He said that to date only a few of these types of flaws have been discovered but it is a sure bet more will be found in the future. This includes flaws in home networking systems and home security.

In addition to these types of governmental agencies of which the TAO is only one among many, the ability of our population to know enough about computers to hack for fun or for serious exploitation is growing as our young people are gaining increasingly technically complex instruction about computers, programming, and infrastructure. With government surveillance, surveillance by citizens for fun or to gather information and monitor peoples’ activities, store and street video cameras, and private cameras set up outside and inside residences, not to mention surveillance from other countries gathering intelligence of this countries systems, it is hard to imaging anywhere or anytime we might not be under surveillance. Where we have come to and the potential for even further exploitation of our privacy and personal information that gets accidentally scooped up with actual targeted data like dolphins when they are fishing for tuna would like have given even George Orwell nightmares.

Most of what we know about developing governmental surveillance programs and America’s growing hacking efforts comes from top-secret NSA documents provided by Edward Snowden, the infamous whistleblower who handed documents to journalists and is still on the run. Although there are laws against persecuting whistleblowers who report something in good faith, and their names are supposed to remain anonymous, this almost never happens. Subsequent to Snowden, another whistleblower, John Crane, came forward supporting the information delivered by Snowden. The irony was that Crane, formerly an assistant inspector general at the Pentagon, was in charge of protecting whistleblowers but when the system failed felt obligated to become one himself. While there was a public outcry after Snowden’s disclosures, there was little change in opinion demonstrated by several polls. In 2006, an NSA surveillance poll indicated that 51 percent of those surveyed found NSA’s surveillance policy to be acceptable while 47 percent found it unacceptable. In a Pew Research poll carried out a month after Snowden’s disclosures although there was some indication that people changed their behavior in terms of electronic security, attitudes about government surveillance remained similar. According to the Pew Research Center:

Overall, 52% describe themselves as “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” about government surveillance of Americans’ data and electronic communications, compared with 46% who describe themselves as “not very concerned” or “not at all concerned” about the surveillance. When asked about more specific areas of concern over their own communications and online activities, respondents expressed somewhat lower levels of concern about electronic surveillance in various parts of their digital lives:

  • 39% describe themselves as “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” about government monitoring of their activity on search engines.
  • 38% say they are “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” about government monitoring of their activity on their email messages.
  • 37% express concern about government monitoring of their activity on their cell phone.
  • 31% are concerned about government monitoring of their activity on social media sites, such as Facebook or Twitter.
  • 29% say they are concerned about government monitoring of their activity on their mobile apps.”

These numbers seem to indicate that while there was an initial outcry against government surveillance of private citizens, there was no real change in opinion or attitudes. Similar findings have been reported on opinions related to surveillance cameras and retention of data at work (only 24% of participants in a Pew survey said this was acceptable), and surveillance cameras placed in neighborhoods and public places (78% of respondents in a New York Times/CBS News Poll were in favor).

Widespread Participatory Surveillance

In summary, George Orwell’s novel, 1984, presents what is often considered to be a frightening picture of the use of surveillance data collected by the government. While much of what Orwell seemed to fear has become a reality in today’s world, the current reality of the negative consequences of participatory surveillance far surpasses what Orwell envisioned. Participatory surveillance is engaged in when individuals knowingly allow websites to access personal information entered in profiles and online forms as well as when easily gathered recordings of oneself and others through commonly owned mobile technology. This process is a type of passive permission for others such as insurance companies, marketing firms, and service providers to gain access to our online information even when we have some semblance of a reason to believe it will be kept anonymous or private.

We know in the back of our minds there are risks every time we are online even if we never enter anything into a form or purchase anything from an online store. Yet most of us leave on our location, camera, and microphone features, believing them to be protected and unable to be used against us. More people ignore the risks feeling that it won’t happen to them.

Individuals contribute even more overtly to the process of public surveillance. They do this by purposely uploading personal information, record, and schedules related to their day, where they are and where they are going, reporting what time they will be away from home or when they will depart on a lengthy vacation.

The long-lasting negative consequences resulting from widespread public access to uploaded records, personal disclosures, images and self-recordings, and videos made of others are often not considered in the short term when engaged in these activities. The ability to not just upload information and images but to share them instantly makes participatory surveillance the largest potential data collection method available.

Surveillance cameras in cities

Surveillance cameras in cities


Review of the Book 1984 by George Orwell

The novel 1984 was authored by a liberal and objective socialist not long after the Second World War had ended. The book discusses a future in a totalitarian state where people’s thoughts and behaviors are minutely monitored, interpreted as indicating party alliance or party misalliance, and controlled to increase or decrease them depending on the valence. The entire novel was based on “what if” questions, specifically what if Britain had lost the war. Orwell found himself wondering what Britain might have looked like if it fell under the rule of either one of the totalitarian powers that dominated the mid-20th century. From that basic question, 1984 was created. Orwell presents a dark, unfulfilling, over-politicized society, which is deemed tolerable for the safety it provides. From the beginning, however, Orwell presents the protagonist as having a passionate individual side that calls to revolt, despite being somewhat pitiful in the opening scenes.

Winston, the protagonist, is an ordinary man who lives in a state sometime in the future, where the rulers control absolutely everything. Winston is a member of the party but just barely works at the Ministry of Truth where he changes historical documents to reflect the government in a more positive light.

Soon he meets Julia who sends him a note saying she loves him and they start an illicit, illegal, passionate affair. Winston rents a room in one of the low-class areas, where he and Julia spend time together, sleep together, and talk about their hopes for freedom, which involves an ideal completely outside of and unconnected to the oppressive state in which they live.

The secret police arrest Winston and take him to the Ministry of Love, an ironic name for a place that "re-indoctrinates” people through torture. At first, Winston won’t say that he was wrong to go against the government. Then he is taken to Room 101, where one is tortured with their worst feats. When a cage with rats, Winton’s greatest fear, is locked on his face he betrays Julia even begging that she take his place.

The book ends with an account of how Winston becomes a committed member of society, no longer resisting the government's control. He sees Julia again but realizes he has no feelings for her at all, instead, he looks up at one of the posters of Big Brother and smiles, realizing that is the individual for whom he feels love.

While the year 1984 has come and gone long ago, the disturbing yet strangely prophetic vision George Orwell presented in 1949 continues to be timelier with each passing decade. The novel 1984 remains the great classic of "negative utopia" which all subsequent dystopian novels were modeled on. As one of the first of its kind in a time when many authors were focusing on the hopeful images of utopias, this view into how terribly wrong things can go for a society run by a government that not just alters people's every behavior through reward (very little of it) and the threat of punishment but even alters their thoughts by changing the past through rewriting documents and thus history. The book is a stunningly original and troubling novel that creates an imaginary world that is entirely convincing, from the first sentence to the last four words. The novel's grasp of the imaginations of not just those who read it as it came out but entire subsequent generations cannot be denied nor can the force of its powerful warnings which seem to become more salient over time.

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Personal Rating for George Orwell's 1984

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This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

Questions & Answers

Question: Are there any companies pushing back against government surveillance so we don’t end up like Orwell’s 1984?

Answer: There have been some signs that social media networks and communications providers are pushing against being forced into an Orwellian surveillance arrangement by the government in the name of greater safety and security. Following Snowden’s whistleblowing on the NSA and its international intelligence partners' secret mass surveillance programs and their capabilities, companies are calling for accountability and transparency in government surveillance in the U.S. and other countries around the world.

In 2014, global communications giant Vodafone revealed the existence of secret wires in their mobile technology that allowed government agencies to listen to any and all conversations on its networks. The company stated that these wires were widely used in a number of the 29 countries in which Vodafone operates across Europe and the world.

Vodaphone chose to disclose this information in an effort to create a backlash against government surveillance leading to the need for warrants and increased transparency when access to customer communications was demanded. In June 2014 the Law Enforcement Disclosure Report was published. The length of a short novel, the report was a detailed and complete survey to date about how governments monitor the conversations and whereabouts of their citizens. Since then, it has been updated three times, the most recent adding new sections addressing data retention and encryption.

The company said wires had been connected directly to its network and those of other telecoms groups, allowing agencies to listen to or record live conversations and, in certain cases, track the whereabouts of users. Spokespeople for privacy campaigns said the disclosures were a "nightmare scenario" that verified their worst fears to the extent to which government spying on private citizens existed.

In addition to providing data for individual countries, the report accused governments of using a variety of methods to pressure online service providers into agreeing to help with clandestine surveillance of their customers.

Vodafone executives and shareholders have called on governments to be more publicly transparent in their associations with telecommunications providers. They also have repeatedly confirmed suspicions of continued direct access technology being employed by some governments. This lets these governments access the private data of the provider’s customers without the need for a court order or warrant. The technology also lets governmental agencies access data without notifying the company involved when the collection of personal data is occurring.

Social media, technology, and communications companies don’t want to be the mechanism through which governments obtain personal private information about their citizens, nor do they want to be forced to take the blame for the surveillance. There is growing anger among these companies regarding the limitations placed on them intended to block them from informing their customers about ongoing government surveillance and how they might be affected.

Other companies standing up against government in support of user privacy are Adobe, Credo, Dropbox, Lyft, Pinterest, Sonic, Uber, Wickr, and Wordpress. Companies ranked as most likely to surrender user data without a fight include AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, Comcast, WhatsApp and Amazon (Electronic Frontier Foundation, 2017).

© 2016 Natalie Frank