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1984 and Surveillance Society

In his prescient novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell describes a dystopian world where Big Brother (the totalitarian state) is watching everyone, where it is a crime to criticize the system, or to even think critically (thoughtcrimes), and where people speak a controlled language (Newspeak) invented by the government to limit freedom of thought. Imagine Orwell’s surprise (or lack thereof) if he were alive today to discover that the house he lived in until his death in 1950, in Islington, North London, is now surrounded by surveillance cameras.


When governments install video cameras in public places and use facial recognition software to identify people, they are telling citizens that they don’t trust them. Some people may argue: What does it matter if your every move is documented, if you aren’t doing anything wrong? In the United States, we operate under a legal system where you are innocent until proven guilty. When everyone is watched all the time, people may begin to feel that they are being treated as potential criminals, which can have a chilling effect on their every action and movement. In addition to indicating to citizens that their government isn’t to be trusted, a surveillance society is one where people cease to trust one another, or even to trust themselves. As a result society itself begins to breakdown.


The U.S. government justifies its surveillance of citizens by claiming that it protects us against terrorism. That was the ostensible purpose of the PATRIOT Act, which enabled roving wiretaps, and the gathering of metadata through pen register and trap and trace devices, and private records searches. While terrorist plots have been stopped through interception of the communication of suspected terrorists, this does not justify the mass surveillance of American citizens without probable cause. The PATRIOT Act is a good example of Orwell’s Newspeak, and more specifically doublethink, where the government wants us to think it is somehow “patriotic” to spy on law-abiding U.S. citizens. Nevertheless, as Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act (used by the NSA to justify its bulk data collection) is set to expire on June 1st 2015, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has introduced a bill to reauthorize the PATRIOT Act until 2020, despite the fact that it violates our right to privacy.

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