Surveillance State 2016: Orwell was an optimist

Reuters reports that troubled Internet giant Yahoo! “complied with a classified U.S. government demand, scanning hundreds of millions of Yahoo Mail accounts at the behest of the National Security Agency or FBI.” According to surveillance experts consulted by Reuters it’s probably “the first case to surface of a U.S. Internet company agreeing to an intelligence agency’s request by searching all arriving messages, as opposed to examining stored messages or scanning a small number of accounts in real time.”

Disturbing? Yes. Surprising? No. Nor is it paranoid to assume that other web mail providers have done the same without admitting it (yet).

Any excuse for not knowing that the U.S. government spies on Americans all the time, everywhere, for various reasons (and sometimes for no discernible reason at all), disappeared in 2013 when former NSA analyst Edward Snowden revealed the existence of PRISM and other illegal domestic spy operations.

Most of us are easy surveillance targets even before the state intercepts our emails at the provider level. And as for the people the state takes an individualized interest in? If you’re singled out for special attention, the resources governments have at their disposal to track your every activity are, if finite, nearly inexhaustible as a practical matter:

Ubiquitous public-facing cameras. “Stingray” type fake cell towers. Spyware for hijacking webcams and microphones. There are more ways to keep track of where you are, who you’re with, and what you are doing or saying than you can shake a stick at, unless you want it noted in your permanent record that you shook a stick at 1:40 p.m. on October 7.

In George Orwell’s classic 1984, still the classic surveillance state dystopia, the regime placed a “telescreen” on the wall of each residence. How many surveillance instruments are in your home or on your body, placed there not by the state but by you yourself? Probably at least one computer and at least one cell phone, each equipped with vulnerable camera and microphone. The cell phone can also be used to track your whereabouts 24/7/365 as long as there’s a battery in it (I don’t know about you, but my new phone’s battery isn’t removable).

You’re far easier to spy on than Orwell’s protagonist, Winston Smith, could possibly have imagined.

What to do about it? History doesn’t run backward; the technologies which make us easy to spy on aren’t going to disappear, nor would we want to live without them.

The governments which use those tools against us, on the other hand, aren’t quite so indispensable. Living without them would mean some adjustments, of course, but we’d be better off in the long run. Our rulers’ greatest fear is that we’ll notice — and act on — that fact.

Thomas L. Knapp

William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism