Orwellian fiction too close for comfort
September 15, 1999
I was recently thumbing through a dog-eared copy of George Orwell’s, “1984,” left over from my high school English class. I was struck by one particular passage, in which the novel’s protagonist, Winston Smith, describes the totalitarian state in which he lives:
“There was, of course, no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time.”
It amazes me that Orwell wrote these words 50 years ago. For they could easily describe the “free” society in which we live today, where privacy, as we used to know it, no longer exists. Where both the government, as well as the corporate sector, use “doublespeak” to justify their brazen abrogations of privacy rights.
Consider these ominous examples:
The National Security Council has proposed the creation of an extensive computer surveillance system to monitor activities on both nonmilitary government computers and computers used by such “critical” industries as banking, telecommunications and transportation.
The Federal Intrusion Detection Network, FIDNET for short, would be overseen by the FBI, which ostensibly would be looking for indications of computer intrusion, tampering or other unlawful acts. Of course, the FBI would also have access to electronic data on millions of Americans who are not hackers or cyber-terrorists.
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But it’s for our own protection, says Richard Clarke, the NSC’s counterterrorism czar. The United States is in danger of “an electronic Pearl Harbor,” he warns.
The Justice Department is seeking the power to secretly enter a person’s home or office and disable the encryption system on their personal computer, allowing the government to monitor e-mail, financial transactions and other online transmissions, as well as download personal files.
Justice officials say they need this new power to counteract encryption software that “is increasingly used as a means to facilitate criminal activity, such as drug trafficking, terrorism, white-collar crime and the distribution of child pornography.”
And in answer to the proles who seem to remember the Fourth Amendment protecting them from unreasonable searches and seizures, Justice officials, assure that their proposal is “consistent with constitutional principles.”
The executive committee of the International Association of Chiefs of Police unanimously endorsed a resolution calling on the federal government and state governments to enact laws mandating collection of DNA samples from individuals when they are arrested, notwithstanding the fact that the majority of arrestees in this country are not convicted of crimes.
That matters not to New York City Police Commissioner Howard Safir, who sponsored the resolution. It’s well and good to collect the DNA of convicted felons, he says, but the police can solve more crimes by having a broader database including not only the DNA of those who’ve actually been found guilty of a crime, but also the DNA of those who might be innocent today, but who just might commit a crime some time in the future.
General Motors acknowledged that it has installed “black boxes” in hundreds of thousands of its 1999 vehicles, unbeknownst to car buyers. The boxes constantly monitor a car’s speed, throttle position and engine rpm.
The secret boxes are “a great tool for learning about the science of auto crashes,” says Terry Rhadigan, GM’s manager of safety communications. However, the drivers of such GM cars as the Buick Century, the Cadillac Seville, the Chevrolet Corvette and the Pontiac Firebird worry that the black boxes installed in their vehicles, without their knowledge and consent, could conceivably be used against them by police and insurance firms.
This is just misplaced fear, said Rhadigan. “All this is another way of finding the truth,” he doublespeaks. “Who could argue with trying to find out what the truth is, except for the people who may be doing something wrong?”
Yes, we are fast approaching the point in this country when Big Brother, in all its various manifestations, is watching everybody all the time. Winston Smith would be right at home. (Copyright 1999 Newspaper Enterprise Assn. Joseph Perkins is a columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune.)