The cage we all helped to build
In 1949, with much of Europe still bearing the architectural and psychological scars of the Second World War, George Orwell first released his dystopian classic, 1984. The novel painted a bleak picture of how he imagined a possible future, with state surveillance all but total, and the human condition reduced to something that was both monitored and shaped with ruthless efficiency. In 2018, we can see that Orwell’s nightmarish prophecy didn’t materialise, at least not in the exact way he imagined. However, in many important and indeed frightening respects, modern society is now under near-constant scrutiny to a degree that even Orwell’s darkest predictions would have failed to grasp.
First of all, and most obviously, consider the capabilities of modern state surveillance. As a British citizen, the author is perhaps a prime candidate to discuss this as the United Kingdom has ranked for several years as arguably the most heavily monitored nation on the planet. With between 4-6 million CCTV cameras within the British Isles – a ratio of perhaps one camera for every 14 people – it is now virtually impossible, especially in the urban centres like London, Manchester and Glasgow, to walk the streets without one’s movements being recorded. Indeed, taking a five-minute stroll through the centre of London one could well be detected by hundreds – if not thousands – of cameras.
Added to this are the capabilities of Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham, which employs some 6,000 people and is among the most advanced surveillance centres ever conceived in human history. Working largely for the British security services – such as MI5 and MI6 – the data collected and analysed by this largely secretive organisation is publicly framed as being used for the “safety and security” of British citizens (and, certainly, to a substantial extent this may well be the case). However, the potential for this technology to be used against Britain’s own citizens – the very ones it claims to protect – is truly terrifying, and something to which we will return later.
Of course, the United Kingdom is far from alone in the extent of its surveillance-capabilities and potential invasion of people’s privacy. The most well-known – and arguably infamous – of these is National Security Agency, which handles the majority of intercept and analysis for the United States of America. Whilst never a public secret (the existence and operations of the NSA were first dramatized in 1998’s Enemy of the State), the role and scope of their operations became a global news story in 2013 through the revelations of a former analyst, Edward Snowden.
Now in self-imposed political exile in Russia – and hailed as often as a hero as he is derided as a traitor to his country – Snowden revealed a wealth of information to The Guardian which detailed the extent to which the United States had the potential to electronically monitor virtually anyone on the planet. Social media profiles, online viewing habits, spending patterns and private social interactions were all revealed to be under near-constant surveillance through various automated algorithms and software programs – many of which were knowingly developed, disseminated and maintained by tech giants like Google and Apple. Evidently, the capability of modern states to monitor the lives of their citizens has reached a level that is beyond even the darkest imaginings of science fictions writers little more than a decade ago.
All of this brings us to the second, and arguably more worrying, aspect of the continuing attack on our collective privacy – that virtually everyone has been an active and willing participant in this development. Social media platforms – the most well-known of course being Facebook and Twitter – are now an established (and, for some, integral and obsessive) part of literally billions of peoples lives. Constant updates, often of the most mundane aspects of peoples’ lives, through text, pictures and video, have become an established means of interacting with the wider world. We all want to get those “likes”, after all.
There is, of course, far more insidious potential in all of this. As Mark Zuckerberg (the founder and owner of Facebook) was recently summoned to Congress in relation to, data-harvesting has now become an established means for various political groups and agencies to target individuals.
Through the data-mining of tens of millions of online profiles, complex (and largely accurate) outlines of people’s personality types – and resultant political trigger points – have been able to be formulated and sold on to third-party groups like Cambridge Analytica. Following on from this, these third-party groups are then able to create content that is not only tailored to larger political groups, but to distinct individuals, in a manner which was impossible in previous generations.
Similar to how one’s YouTube advertisements are tailored to their viewing habits, the information that appears on the likes of Facebook feeds has, for at least a few years now, been targeted specifically to individual preferences and influences. If you’re a black, male, middle-class, liberal who cares about the environment, you’ll see stories which are designed to suit your own wants and needs; whilst if you happen to be a conservative, 45-year-old female with a family and a desire for spending cuts to welfare, you’ll see something entirely different.
There was never an objective political reality to begin with, but now (with an increasing number of people getting their political news and opinions from online sources) we are quickly moving into something which better resembles a multiverse, with each person’s distinct online profile leading to the creation of a narrative tailored specifically to their own prejudices and desires. As has been shown in the likes of the 2016 US Presidential race and the UK’s Brexit referendum, this has very real implications on contemporary politics around the world.
Again though, perhaps the most shocking aspect of this is that most of us have happily went along with this. Indeed, we actively sign up to and pay for it. We all have an idea about the extent of surveillance capabilities, and yet we happily carry around mobile phones at all hours of the day which – potentially – record where we are, who we speak to, what we view online, and have the ability to listen to us literally anywhere and everywhere we are. We sign user agreements which allow our data to be harvested, analysed and sold-off to third-parties, all for the opportunity to post pictures of our dinner on Twitter with a witty hashtag.
This, for the moment, should be a cause for at least some concern to most – or at least be given more thought and consideration than is generally the case now. This gradual erosion of our privacy, and the shaping of our political opinions, may not be seen as particularly dangerous at the moment – but, then again, when 1984 was first released it was largely viewed as science fiction.
Should a political event – such a terrorist attack – provide a given state the requisite mandate to target, harass, monitor, incarcerate or even kill its own citizens or those of another country, we may well have sleepwalked into a situation where we made it infinitely more achievable for them to enact such measures. It is a terrifying possibility and, pessimistic as it may sound, no longer one that is confined to the minds of science fictions writers.