We’re all Winston Smiths now

Over this last week, what with various Orwell quotes in newspaper comment sections, I must have read 1984 from cover to cover. On the otherhand, many readers seem to think that the American National Security Agency (NSA) scandal only involves phone records, e-mails and online activity. An opinion poll released last night showed that most British people aren’t too bothered about it.

It’s worth looking at some of the things that Edward Snowden said when he was interviewed in Hong Kong by Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill. The interview was done in a question and answer format:

Q: Why did you decide to become a whistleblower?

A: “The NSA has built an infrastructure that allows it to intercept almost everything. With this capability, the vast majority of human communications are automatically ingested without targeting. If I wanted to see your emails or your wife’s phone, all I have to do is use intercepts. I can get your emails, passwords, phone records, credit cards.

“I don’t want to live in a society that does these sort of things … I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded. That is not something I am willing to support or live under.”

Q: Is it possible to put security in place to protect against state surveillance?

A: “You are not even aware of what is possible. The extent of their capabilities is horrifying. We can plant bugs in machines. Once you go on the network, I can identify your machine. You will never be safe whatever protections you put in place.”


If what Edward Snowden is saying is true it has massive ramifications. We’re not just talking about phone records, e-mails and online activity here. The US security services now apparently have the ability to access just about all information about someone, not just in America, but anywhere in the world. This includes stuff like bank records, medical records, and even the colour of someone’s shirt. Shirt..? you may ask. I’ll get on to that in a minute; but first, whilst many people might not have been shocked that this massive online surveillance was going on, a lot of people would have been taken aback by the internet giants who cosied-up to the NSA. There seems to be nine of them: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple (Amazon and Twitter appear to be notable exceptions). To be fair to these companies, they are obliged under US law to comply with requests from the security services. However, since the core business of these internet giants is the trusted guardianship of data, it’s somewhat surprising that they all rolled over so compliantly. At least one of them could have gone to court over it; but oh no.

Microsoft was the first one to get in bed with the NSA in 2007. Apple was the latest in October 2012 (here). Both companies have massively popular operating systems that are used on computers all over the world. You’re not taking such a large leap to say that there’s now every likelihood that these operating systems are shipped with a back door entrance for the US security services. This not only means that the likes of the NSA have free range of your computer, and know everything that you’re doing on it, they can also watch you (and see the colour of your shirt) and listen via your computer’s camcorder. If this sounds far fetched, I suggest that next time you download an app for your device you should look very closely at the terms and conditions for that app. You’ll discover, amongst other things, that you are agreeing to allow the app unfettered access to your device’s camera.

Of course, this kind of incredibly intrusive surveillance can only work if your device is on a network; and I don’t just mean being plugged-in or in reach of wi-fi, it also includes mobile phone networks. There’s now not many places left on earth where you can’t get a mobile signal, where the NSA can’t put you under surveillance (this probably also includes satellite networks, which cover the entire globe).

I’m afraid we’re all Winston Smiths now.

Edward Snowden went to the Guardian and Washington Post with a 41 page NSA Powerpoint presentation. So far the Guardian has published 5 of these pages (one page was redacted for security reasons: these newspapers clear everything with the NSA before publishing). If Greenwald and the Guardian are playing their cards right, they’ll give certain people just enough rope to hang themselves before publishing more of the presentation. It’ll be very interesting to see how things develop in the coming days and weeks.

Note: there are ways to block this NSA surveillance, which I’ll get into in another post.

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