“Thoughtcrime was not a thing that could be concealed forever,” George Orwell wrote in 1984, describing the “Newspeak” term for any crime that was evidence of disloyalty. “You might dodge successfully for a while, even for years, but sooner or later they were bound to get you.” Though written more than six decades ago in 1949, Orwell’s dystopian fiction has been hauntingly prophetic in its accuracy describing the nature of totalitarian societies, particularly the frightening methods for exacting control over the population.
Orwell’s omnipresent “Thought Police,” who penetrated every facet of civilian life, were replicated for decades until the fall of the Berlin Wall by the feared East German “Stasi”; and until the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, by the KGB. Russian citizens today, under Vladimir Putin, himself a former KGB official, reportedly suffer similar “Big Brother-ism.”
Even in the United States, we see eerie similarities developing within and among the myriad federal agencies that are either directly or indirectly involved in gathering, processing, disseminating, and data-basing information on and about the citizenry. This is no longer a concern that should be directed only at those agencies historically tasked with such activities – the FBI, the CIA, and the NSA primarily. Virtually every federal agency has now become part of the problem.
The Transportation Safety Administration employs “behavior detection officers” to scan facial expressions in order to identify would-be terrorists. DNA is harvested at roadblocks on public highways. The US Postal Service conducts hundreds of thousands of “mail covers” each year, “come rain, shine or dead of night.”
But it is the arena of electronic communications data gathering that has provided the most abundant – and scary – harvest of personal information a la George Orwell.
Owing largely to the actions of Edward Snowden and reporter Glenn Greenwald, we know that any digital communication in which a person participates can be, and likely is, recorded, stored and analyzed by the NSA. The Department of Justice even uses fake cell phone towers on Cessna airplanes to surreptitiously collect cell phone data from American citizens.
Last weekend, however, America moved yet another step closer to fulfilling Orwell’s vision for the future under a totalitarian state as the New York Times revealed that a disturbing number of federal agencies are now using costly, and largely unsupervised, “undercover” investigations to conduct surveillance. These “Secret Police” pose as “business people, welfare recipients, political protesters and even doctors or ministers” in order to catch suspects, or whomever else may fall within the ever-expanding registry of federal criminal offenses (now approaching 5,000 in number).
For years privacy advocates have warned about the steady expansion of virtually unchecked powers both granted to, and assumed by, federal law enforcement and clandestine services agencies. The situation is made far worse by virtue of the fact that many of these activities now are undertaken “in the shadows,” with minimal or no real oversight by the President, agency heads or even congressional overseers. The agencies thus are left largely free to carry on as nearly autonomous entities, guided only by the vague, if not meaningless principle, that they are “protecting us” -- whatever the financial or legal costs.
Since the 9/11 attacks, the notion of “Saving America” is now more of a rote mantra used to justify whatever actions government agencies or individual employees decide to undertake so long as such actions can be shoe-horned into the box labeled “homeland security.” The mammoth mechanism of the federal government has transmogrified from an entity designed to protect liberty, into an opaque and self-justifying Praetorian Guard made almost impenetrable to the citizenry through the double-edged sword of modern technology.
This now-galloping mission creep once was relegated primarily to the major federal law enforcement and spy agencies. No longer is this the case. Last weekend’s New York Times revelations illustrates clearly how this toxic mentality has infected virtually every facet of the federal government. Like financial institutions that believed themselves “too big to fail,” the federal government now considers itself “too important to restrain.” Each department, agency, or office has a mission it considers absolutely essential to protecting America from crime, corruption and terrorism -- where even discussion about limits to their extra-legal exploits is taboo.
The tangible threats posed by this paradigm are fundamental and widespread. If someone with the I.R.S. can pose as an attorney to catch criminals, how are citizens supposed to trust in the integrity of the right to defend themselves against government charges? If a special agent with the FBI can pretend to be an AP reporter, is any media product free from suspicion? And, if an employee of the DEA can steal content and photos from citizens to use in sting operations, how are we to trust that even our friends’ and family’s online communications are not the product of government snoops?
“There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment,” Orwell wrote 65 years ago.“You had to live -- did live, from habit that became instinct -- in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.” Sadly, the ubiquity of home computers, smart phones, iPads, and other information-sharing devices – all susceptible to government GPS tracking – have make Orwell’s society, in which at least the dark of night provided some relief from government’s prying eyes and ears, a quaint relic of a bygone day.