19th July 2021
One of the many pities about Nineteen Eighty-Four being too familiar a book is that one can overlook the care with the author of the story constructs the world of an intrusive surveillance state.
The author, a former police officer, does this briskly and subtly.
First he takes the central character through a hallway where a poster has face that is – metaphorically – ‘watching you’.
Then you are told:
‘In the far distance a helicopter skimmed down between the roofs, hovered for an instant like a bluebottle, and darted away again with a curving flight. It was the police patrol, snooping into people’s windows.’
So you are being watched – not metaphorically – from the outside.
And when the character enters his flat:
‘The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it, moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard.’
You are also thereby being watched – and again not metaphorically – from the inside.
We are still fewer than 700 words into the novel, but the author has already depicted the claustrophobic predicament of living in a surveillance state.
Today’s Guardian has set out in a number of articles the extent to which such a surveillance regime is now translated from a literary text into social and policy reality.
None of this is surprising.
And none of this is new: the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four easily imagined such things in the 1940s.
What has not changed is the want of those with political control to have such power.
All that has changed is that those with political power now have access to the technology that enables them to have that power.
But perhaps unlike the state in Nineteen Eighty-Four, those with power do not proclaim from posters – in hallways or otherwise – that we are being watched.
And instead of it being on a big screen on your wall, you willingly and casually carry the means of this intrusion around with you.
Indeed, you are probably looking at that very device this very moment.
From a constitutional and legal perspective, the obvious issues are the extent to which – if at all – there is any accountability for the use of these powers and the extent to which – if at all – there is any regard for human rights and civil liberties.
And as this blog has previously averred, there is very little accountability and transparency for those with political power even for things which are in the open and without the daggerful cloak of ‘national security’.
Indeed, even cabinet ministers have realised recently that they are under surveillance in their own offices with no control over that surveillance and the uses to which it will be put.
The one welcome, fairly recent development is that this surveillance state is now (nominally) on a lawful basis.
Each power and exercise of power by the state has to be within the law.
First: such is the lack of real accountability and transparency, it makes no difference to the surveillance state whether it is within the law or not.
Even when there is something that is known-about and contestable, the deference of our judges when ‘national security’ is asserted is considerable.
Our judges may not use gavels – that is a myth – but they may as well use rubber-stamps.
And second: public law, well, only covers directly the actions and inactions of public bodies.
But as today’s Guardian revelations show, the software and technology comes from the private sector and there is little or nothing that can effectively regulate what private entities can do with the same means of surveillance.
Public law bites – to the extent that there are teeth attached to a jaw capable of biting – only once the technology and data are in the hands of public bodies.
It is a depressing situation – and not one which can be easily addressed, if at all.
This blog has been criticised that it does not provide solutions to the problems that it describes and discusses.
But sometimes predicaments do not have ‘solutions’.
It is a tidy human habit of mind to conceptualise matters of concern as ‘problems’ – for that often implies there must be solutions.
Once you say a thing is a problem you usually are half-way to suggesting that there must be some solution.
But the predicament of those with power having greater and greater control by means of technology may not have any natural limit.
Each update and upgrade just making it easer for those with public and private power to intrude and invade.
Imagine reboots, stamping out your data – forever.
Thank you for reading.
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