George Orwell repeatedly delayed crucial medical care to complete 1984 — the book still synonymous with our worst fears of a totalitarian future — Half a year after his novel’s debut, he was dead. Because he believed everything was at stake, he forfeited everything, including a young son, a devoted sister, a wife of three months and a grateful public that canonised his prescient and pressing novel. But today we are haunted by a question: Did George Orwell die in vain?
Orwell sought to awaken the British and U.S. societies to the totalitarian dangers that threatened democracy even after the Nazi defeat. In letters before and after his novel’s completion, Orwell urged “constant criticism”, warning that any “immunity” to totalitarianism must not be taken for granted: “Totalitarianism, if not fought against, could triumph anywhere.”
Since George Orwell’s 1984 was published, the dangers of public surveillance has been a constant fear and threat, for years we have managed to negate the dangers and brush it off by saying this can only happen in an Orwellian world, but the story of Pegasus and a new dangerous machine of surveillance has come to rise and one cannot help but ask the question again: Are we really living in an Orwellian society?
For 19 years, companies have been working on surveillance machines: As Google celebrates 23 years of its existence, new technology and economics now claim private human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioural data. Some data is used to improve services but the rest are turned into computational products that predict your behaviour: for example a simple Google search for a pair of jeans or a nose ring is enough and for many days your suggestions will be similar to what you’ve searched for. They analyse your data, figure out your tastes and what you like and dislike and then put out ads that they know will catch your eye.
In a way we were being spied on, these predictions they make about you are given to other portals as well: YouTube or Instagram where surveillance capitalists sell certainty to businesses determined to know what we will do next. This logic was first applied to finding which ads online will attract our interest, but similar practices now reside in nearly every sector — insurance, retail, health, education, finance and more — where personal experience is secretly captured and computed for behavioural predictions. By now, it is no exaggeration to say that the Internet is owned and operated by private surveillance capital.
In the competition for certainty, surveillance capitalists learned that the most predictive data come not just from monitoring but also from modifying and directing behaviour. For example, by 2013, Facebook had learnt how to engineer subliminal cues on its pages to shape users’ real-world actions and feelings. Later, these methods were combined with real-time emotional analyses, allowing marketers to cue behaviour at the moment of maximum vulnerability. These inventions were celebrated for being both effective and undetectable. Cambridge Analytica later demonstrated that the same methods could be employed to shape political rather than commercial behaviour.
The world has a history of surveillance and spying from the times of the Romans to very recently the Pegasus Spyware investigation which revealed how journalists, political opposition, activists and students were being spied upon by state structures.
In ancient Rome, major political players had their own surveillance networks, which provided them with information about schemes of those in power. Julius Caesar put together an elaborate spy network to keep himself apprised of the various plots against him.
During the French Revolution, Maximilien Robespierre and his cohorts kept an eye on the population: wherever there was dissent they ruthlessly came down upon the same and soon, in 1793, the revolutionary government established “committees of surveillance” throughout the country. This committee was given the power to identify, monitor and arrest any suspicious former nobles, foreigners, nationals who had recently returned from abroad, suspended public officials and many more. Historians have estimated that more than half a million people were targeted by this committee and they were famous to be extremely cruel and ruthless in the smaller French towns.
The 18th and 19th century governments undertook surveillance with an enormous amount of zeal. Across Europe, departments “Black Chambers” were established that specialised in surveillance: they were to read letters of targeted individuals.
The bureaux, usually located in post office buildings, employed a variety of techniques to surreptitiously open, copy and reseal correspondence, then forward the missives on to the unsuspecting recipients.
This practice caused the British government quite an embarrassing episode in a scandal that took place in 1844. London’s “Black chamber” was revealed to have secretly been reading the letters of an exiled Italian author and activist named Guisseppe Mazzini. Many in the British public were furious that their government played a crucial role in giving out information to the Neapolitans, who then used this information to come down hard on the revolution and execute Mazzini’s fellow revolutionaries.
In Europe, the industrial revolution was also a revolution in spy-craft. We come from a history of surveillance, the KGB in Stalins Russia to Nazi Germany Gestapo, to the CIA, FBI, one spy agency after another: only that now the techniques have changed just as Orwell predicted. We live in an Orwellian society where the “Big Brother” sits quietly and watches. Google receives thousands of requests each year from governments seeking everything from “names and IPs used to create accounts, to time stamps for when Gmail accounts were logged in and out of.”
This history of surveillance leads us to the birth and the use of Pegasus, created to hack into any system, listen and collect data while we wouldn’t even realise that we’re being watched, which takes this to a new level of privacy breach and danger, which Orwell predicted correctly. Looking back on these predictions and the state of the world today, how much did Orwell’s 1984 get right in its predictions of a dystopian surveillance state where every word is monitored, unacceptable speech is deleted, history is rewritten or deleted altogether and individuals can become “unpersons” for holding views disliked by those in power? Seems like Orwell’s predictions were frighteningly accurate.
Yet, our world goes far beyond the one imagined by Orwell in which every device from our watches to our refrigerators, our thermostats to our toasters, are increasingly Internet-connected and streaming a real time documentary of our lives back to these private surveillance empires. Now the danger is worse than even what George Orwell predicted in 1984. The danger of surveillance only came from the state before but in 2021 the danger not only comes from the state but also from private companies monitoring, monetizing and manipulating society for nothing more than commercial gain.
Featured image source: ZDNet