There are still people warning us of sleepwalking into a Stasi or “1984” society. They missed the boat by a long shot: we are already far, far past the point of Stasi or “1984”. The apparatus that governments have built to trace, track, and record citizens is the stuff of nightmares.
The scene-setting paragraph in George Orwell’s 1984 is still something that gives you chills, even as the book has so old it has come out of the copyright monopoly in Australia:
Behind Winston’s back the voice from the telescreen was still babbling away about pig-iron and the overfulfilment of the Ninth Three-Year Plan. 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. 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. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. 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.
We’re far, far beyond this point. Replace “Thought Police” above with the more general “Government”, and you could fit this story into the United Stasi’s NSA story, the Swedish FRA story, or any similar one.
The government agencies’ claim of “we’re not watching everybody all the time, we target different people” is exactly what is written above – for “at any rate, they could plug into your wire whenever they wanted to”.
Oh yes, the cameras? The government doesn’t have cameras installed in every home, right? Well, no. But we do, and the government has taken itself the right to use them to watch us, breaking into our computers to use our webcams. Germany was famous for this a couple of years back with its so-called Bundestrojaner. The primary difference between this scene from 1984 and today, in terms of the cameras, is that we installed them ourselves.
So far, we’re only at the 1984 or Stasi level. But things have become much worse.
Our movements as we walk about in the city are traced, tracked and recorded – almost down to the footstep level. Every step you take, they’ll be watching you. If you deviate more than 100 meters from your usual path, that can be noted and flagged. The first time you see your own movement maps, and realize that somebody else is gather this information to use it against you, sends shivers down your spine. Where were you on April 17, 2012, at 13:21 European time? You were on the move, but at what speed? Whence and whither? Somebody has an answer to that question, and it’s not you.
This leads us to the key difference between the Stasi horror dystopia and the worse society today. Those of us who have read or seen 1984 recall that if the government didn’t catch what you were saying at the time you said it, you had gotten away. Words disappeared as fast as they were spoken and heard, or not heard.
That’s different today. In those dystopias, anything you said could and would be used against you. In our today, anything you say can and will be used against you, today or decades into the future. Everything is recorded. Everything.
If you’re redflagged for some stupid reason one year from today, what you were saying just five minutes ago will come under scrutiny, and whom you spoke them to. If the laws or social norms change to make the things you do right now suspicious in a decade, you’re going to be seen as a suspicious individual if somebody finds out – for everything is recorded.
Stasi couldn’t record what newspaper articles you were reading. For how long. And in what order. That, along with pretty much every thought you have ever explored while sitting at a computer, is now part of your permanent record – even if you never told a single human being.
So you use encryption, you say? Mumble, Redphone, PGP? How nice for you. But a particular encryption has a shelf life. What’s breakable today wasn’t breakable a decade ago, and the NSA is saving every piece of encrypted communications, too. What’s not breakable today may be so in a decade. If you’re encrypting things with the intent of keeping them safe forever, that’s not what today’s reality looks like. Oh, and when did you last change your key? Wait, you do encrypt in the first place, don’t you?
We tend to think of a lost cryptokey as needing to change that key before we make any future communications, kind of like a lost housekey needs replacement. It’s much worse than that. If we lose the key, we just decrypted everything we had ever sent encrypted – for somebody had saved it on the odd chance that such an event could happen.
A lost housekey doesn’t mean your home immediately gets broken into a year ago, but that’s the case with today’s cryptokeys.
We are far, far beyond the point of Stasi or “1984”. Isn’t it time to at least stop, look and listen to what we’ve created?