From 1984 to Miss Minutes: the surveillance state is watching you, and there is little or nothing at law you can do about it

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.


Two things.

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.


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16 thoughts on “From 1984 to Miss Minutes: the surveillance state is watching you, and there is little or nothing at law you can do about it”

  1. At first glance, I thought that Miss Minutes’ inclusion here was just an Easter Egg.

    But the more I consider the point, the more relevant her presence becomes.

    A pan-dimensional panopticon, spying on all of time and space, completely unaccountable (even to its ostensible overseers). Five Quintillion Eyes, if you will.

    Spectaculative Fiction is at its best when it takes the problems, issues and prejudices of the day, coats them in a fantastic veneer, and smuggles them back into our consciousness in a concealed form, provoking questions without us necessarily realising it.

    1. PS: If you, like me, are frustrated by the truths illustrated in this piece, consider supporting your local privacy-advocate organisation. For me it’s Open Rights Group, other orgs are available

  2. As well as the very pertinent 1984 references, I am reminded of my all-time favourite Dilbert cartoon. Pointy-haired boss to Dilbert “HR tells me you haven’t been carrying your employee locator device.” Dilbert: “My what?” P-hB: “Oh – you probably call it your smartphone!”

  3. I’ve often thought a key question in any age is “do governments have as much power as they choose to take, or as much as their citizens choose to give them”? With the C21st technology available, the answer now is surely the former. Any number of worthy pretexts – terrorism, money-laundering etc – will and do serve to justify this massive encroachment on our liberties. Is it irreversible? Probably, sadly. We’re all Chinese now, whether we think we are or not.

  4. And yet, and yet, how could Orwell have predicted that, rather than fighting the constant and ubiquitous surveillance tooth and nail, by both the State and Private Sector; instead, the citizens ran with open arms to welcome every new intrusion and theft of personal data, having succumbed with little opposition to the Siren calls of “safety”, “convenience”, “to improve our customer service”… What they mean of course is “overt and covert surveillance”, “intelligence gathering” and “control’. But then Orwell knew how the State can sell a lie in a slogan: “freedom is slavery”, “ignorance is strength”, “war is peace”, “global Britain”, get Brexit done”, “levelling up”.

    By the way I like “daggerful” – almost Shakespearean.

  5. Is the surveillance state to be feared if it doesn’t have or exercise corresponding coercive powers?

    People in Winston’s world conformed with the regulations (including staying in sight of their screen) because the punishment for refusing to comply was so severe.

    If there had been no punishment, people would presumably have draped a heavy cloth over the screen when they wanted to protect their privacy?

    Our sharing of personal data – our willingness to be part of the surveillance society is mainly voluntary (even if we are not fully aware of the extent of it).

    The problem (if there is one) seems to arise when the information is used as ‘evidence’ against us.

    I don’t know what the answer is or if there is one – not least because I’m not sure where the problem really lies.

    Is it in the actions of the state or the individual choices of ‘free’ people?


  6. The country (maybe the World) is run by a few, for the benefit of a few (some are judges)

    To do this to full effect, the ‘public’ must have no control and the favoured few, all of it..

    Our role is just to pay for it – including involuntarily giving up privacy, liberty and ‘freedom’ (whatever that is supposed to be!)

  7. Two points…as far as I am aware…where a private company is fulfilling a role on behalf of a public body, that they are bound by the same constraints and law.

    The other and this may seem…paranoid, to a degree, but would swear to the truth in court if needed.

    Back in the early 90s we had 2 really old style televisions…the ones with a wooden exterior a veneer look. My cousin was playing on a NES in one bedroom while I was trying to tune another in my room. In the static between stations…his game…on a tv not physically connected…what was sending that signal, the NES or the TV?

    1. “where a private company is fulfilling a role on behalf of a public body, that they are bound by the same constraints and law”.

      I’m not so sure that’s true. Private companies’ takeovers of healthcare services which used to be public sector NHS run seem to be creating “blended” legal and managerial set-ups.

      While the NHS used to have obligations to public transparency (eg holding meetings in public, replying to FoI requests etc) and to public accountability, now the public get increasingly fobbed off by arguments that issues are “commercially sensitive”; private sector organisations don’t need to answer FoI requests; and patients have no right to complain directly to the private sector provider about failures to deliver adequate services.

  8. You mention that the modern state generally does not proclaim that we are being watched. This is true, for an obvious reason which I am surprised Orwell did not acknowledge – it makes it much easier and more comfortable to do the watching if the subjects are unaware of it.

    But there are some states, such as Russia, which go half-way – as it were – to the Orwellian vision by giving a subtle and nasty psychological twist to their use of this technology. They have perfected the fine art of letting their surveillance targets know, almost with “a nod and wink”, that they are being spied upon, often in the most private and personal parts of their lives.

    This technique – which has its own name in Russian – has the aim of destabilising the target, creating fear and paranoia, and generating an oppressive atmosphere which hinders their work and saps their morale. It’s a form of low-level psychological harassment, a kind of mind-control, which has its place in the arsenal of spook’s “black arts”.

    “You know we are watching everything, so be careful what you do” can sometimes be more effective than the traditional silent and untraceable scrutiny – and more insidious. I think this is what Orwell was trying to suggest.

  9. I was one of those that suggested your blog would perhaps benefit from considering the usefulness or otherwise of potential solutions to some of the problems that you so eloquently write about. A blog about ‘policy’ would surely benefit from considering what policy options may help solve or improve or mitigate the problematic issue(s) being described.

    I was pleased to notice that since I made my comment, your posts do appear to ponder more on what, if any, solutions, mitigations or approaches are available . Even if one is unable to come up with suitable and practical suggestions, it adds value to the piece in question, I think, to reflect on potentially fruitful ways to address problematic predicaments and issues.

  10. Orwell’s 1984 is an amalgam of items from his own experiences both during and before the Second World War. The Ministry of Truth is based largely on the wartime Ministry of Information. The telescreen is purely a figment of his imagination, though with modern technology something like it could be possible. People spying on each other is a fact of life in many states as Orwell would know from his experiences in Spain and elsewhere. I have myself encountered it in this country; everyone knows of the office sneak, the toady who feeds the boss with the item of tittle-tattle about some individual.

    I could go on but what gives the novel much of its power is the fact that much of what Orwell relates is recognisable from everyday life of the present day.

  11. There are two immediate issues in the news right now.

    The first is the surveillance state, which ever since Snowden has been shown to be operating illegally and with little regard to human rights. As the author notes this cannot easily be fixed.

    The second is shadowy companies selling attack kits that target iOS and Android. Google and Apple should have defensive technologies to stop this. They shouldn’t be shipping software with vulnerabilities, they have more and better resources than the state actors attacking them. There are plenty of techniques to mitigate these attacks even if you can’t stop the initial compromise. We see this in increasingly powerful commercial products for enterprise.

    This is essential as intelligence services don’t declare discovered zero day vulnerabilities in software but now exploit them. Inevitably these leak leading to yet more chaos.

  12. Listeners hear no good of themselves.

    Gathering information has never been easier. But what real good and what real harm does it do? The listeners and watchers and their informants are somewhat in the position of parasites. They feed off their hosts but not so much as to produce a reaction.

    Anyone with a serious secret to hold knows to keep it well away from phones and computers of any sort. To be listener aware. Non-standard encryption etc attracts attention. For the rest all that is learned is consumer information – a short-lived commodity.

  13. not really off topic but kind of
    “Endorsed by the home secretary, Priti Patel, the consultation argues that press disclosures can be worse than spying, because the work of a foreign spy “will often only be to the benefit of a single state or actor”.
    reading this in the guardian.
    BRACE BRACE indeed

  14. “Imagine reboots, stamping out your data – forever.” Or taking control of women’s data and thereby women as explored by Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale.

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