In George Orwell's classic novel 1984, the main character, Winston Smith, lives in a totalitarian dystopia, where all members of society are liable to be spied on by the government at any time. His equivalent of a television is a "telescreen", which works both ways - he can watch TV in the normal way, but the TV can watch him, and even yell at him in real-time.
The world described by Orwell in 1984 has become, in many ways, the defining description of the ultimate absence of freedom, so much so that "Orwellian" is a synonym for a totalitarian police state, especially one with total surveillance of the citizens. As citizens of the free world, Westerners might tend to view 1984 something like a horror film - good for a shiver at night of things that "might have been", but morning light reveals it to be nothing more than a nightmare.
More and more, however, the march of technology should cause warning signs and alarms. In the dictatorships and absolute monarchies of past centuries, most individual people had a certain amount of freedom, simply because the police could not be everywhere. Napoleon was an absolute dictator, and could command anything he pleased; the average Frenchman, though, was not so likely to get into any particular trouble, as long as he did not do anything overtly to draw official notice.
In the dictatorships of the 20th century, modern management allowed a much more thorough form of totalitarianism. We know many Nazis were inhuman monsters; far more, however, were just bureaucrats, shuffling papers around. Those papers were lists of Jews and others to be killed; records of birth and parentage; and published articles contrary to the Party line. In Napoleon's day, engineering repression with Nazi efficiency would have been difficult, if not impossible; the Nazis were able to effectively process and exterminate 6 million Jews.
The Soviet Union, and Mao's China, also ran as modern totalitarian states. Those systems had a much longer lifetime than Hitler's thirteen years in power, and killed correspondingly more people. The record of the Cold War, however, shows protests and dissidents both small and great, from individuals as famous as Alexander Solzhenitsyn, right down to the individual Russian illegally tuning in to the Voice of America on his secret radio.
Dissidence in Russia and China were punished by imprisonment, torture, and death in the famous Gulag. But the fact that the Siberian camps existed, indicates that dissidence was possible - that is, that it was possible for an individual to express disagreement, to develop a coherent opposition to the system, prior to being detected and dealt with. Again, a certain level of action (even if only talking to the wrong person) to draw the attention of the authorities - or really bad luck - was necessary. Even in a police state, there is a limited number of policemen, and a large, but still limited, number of informers and internal spies, who to some limited extent can be avoided or evaded for a time.
Today, however, we are seeing developments that individually seem unimportant, but collectively offer abilities of observation and control undreamed of by the despots of old.
First, surveillance cameras have been sprouting in public places for years. All manner of private businesses use them as protection against criminals, particularly ones with deal in cash or late at night; practically every gas station, convenience store, or bank has a prominent camera watching the checkout counter. These generally record on a loop-tape, so that only the last 24 hours or so of film are available. If nothing of interest happens, the tape keeps recording, and yesterday's activity is soon recorded over. If there's a crime committed, however, the police can stop the machine, take the tape, and analyze it for clues.
In fact, these systems have been used to solve other crimes not relating directly to the store owning the camera. In a celebrated murder investigation in Philadelphia, over 50 different, unrelated video monitoring systems were examined to try to trace the path of the killer, and this led directly to his arrest.
This is the kind of news that makes citizens feel safer, and indeed, is an example of good surveillance. If no obvious crime had taken place, nobody would ever have looked at any of those tapes, and whatever was on them would have disappeared into the mists of time, since they were owned individually by private entities. But when something bad took place, the evidence was available for use - not, however, without a great deal of time and effort by the authorities to collect, collate, and examine it all. There's no practical way they could use it against ordinary crimes.
Modern systems, however, are not just a camera connected to a VCR. The Internet and modern communications allow cameras to be connected to a central monitoring system; then for the monitors to be integrated; and with modern software, for individuals to be tracked from one camera location, to the next, to the next - in effect, a real-time spy following you around. Britain, the birthplace of modern liberty, is now the world leader in this regard. The average Briton is recorded 300 times each day, and the British are now thought to be the most snooped-on people in the free world. With around 4.2 million cameras in what is really not a geographically large country, it is difficult, and impossible in any city, to move around without being watched.
As elsewhere, the argument for the cameras was to cut down on crime. And this makes perfect sense - even if the presence of a camera does not deter the criminal, it should surely make catching him easier. Indeed, the cameras are used for catching criminals; just not the sort of criminals that the general public had in mind. British government cameras are used far more for catching speeders than catching murderers. Work is now under way to integrate the systems with other government databases, including vital records, DNA, and even health records - remember, in England the National Health System is a government agency, so the databases can be combined at the stroke of a pen.
Here in the United States, we can look at our government's record of incompetence, and feel much safer. If the FAA can hardly maintain its 1970s air traffic control systems, let alone build a new one, and the FBI can't keep its email system secured, then we don't have too much to worry about right away. And indeed, it's hard to imagine a U.S. government agency with the technical and managerial competence to put together an all-encompassing surveillance system, especially in a country the size of the United States.
However, government spies are not the only ones we need fear. The mere existence of a computerized database holding records of a person's activities, is a magnet for lawyers. This has become a problem in the New England states with the prevalence of the EZ-Pass automated toll system.
EZ-Pass is an electronic transponder, kind of like a radio license plate that uniquely identifies each car. When you drive through an EZ-Pass toll lane, the computer reads the transponder, looks the number up in the system, and knows who you are. Then it can charge the toll fee to your credit card automatically. No need to fish for change, or even slow down - just zip right through the gate, and watch for the charge on your next billing statement. Sounds like a huge improvement in convenience, doesn't it? And indeed it is - large majorities now use EZ-Pass on the toll highways in and out of Manhattan, for example, and the same system is used on tollways from Boston to Washington and points west.
The trouble is, the system was designed to keep a record of who was where, when. There are many ways it could have been done anonymously, but that's not how it works. If you drive your car through an EZ-Pass toll lane, a permanent record is made of exactly where your car was, at exactly what time. This is extremely useful in divorce cases, for example - if you said you were on business in Philadelphia, but your ex-wife's attorney can prove you were instead driving through a tollway in New Jersey, it looks very bad. Again, the problem is not that you can be followed - divorce cases have been the bread and butter of private detectives for decades - it is that the data exists all along, available for anyone's use, and from long before suspicions are even aroused.
Though our government cannot seem to get the systems together to prevent terrorists from getting visas, it has a much better track record of pursuing the Almighty Dollar. A little-known program prevents U.S. citizens from receiving passports if there are any outstanding child-support payments due from them. This is bad enough if you are inside the U.S. wanting to leave on vacation - but what about if your pocket is picked when you are overseas? You're stuck there without a passport, and your own government will not give you one. Now, it is easy to have little sympathy for deadbeat dads, but the child-support laws in many states are so devoid of safeguards, that paternity fraud has caused child-support orders to be falsely issued on tens of thousands of innocents. It's bad enough to be sent false bills by your own government, but to be held hostage overseas as a result?
We may shortly be granted the opportunity to observe just what modern technology is capable of. Today's China is an odd combination of free and not-free. There is enough economic freedom over there that the government has plenty of money and technical competence to throw around; but it's still something more akin to a Communist dictatorship as far as transparency of governance and responsiveness to citizens. The city of Shenzen is now installing a high-tech system, using Western technology, to integrate 20,000 government cameras, 180,000 privately-owned cameras, and radio-controlled RFID residency cards. This will allow the Chinese police not only to monitor all citizens of Shenzen, but also to control their movements - in China, to live in a city, you must have a city residency card, and if you do not have one, you are supposed to go back to the countryside where there are no jobs. One can only imagine what Communist China could use this kind of system for - but we're about to find out.
Does our government have an evil master plan to create a police state? Probably not. But England shows how far down that road it's possible to go in a free society, and despite the growing concern over there, there is no sign of it slowing down. In the latest news, straight out of 1984, some surveillance cameras are being equipped with two-way audio. In other words, not only can the policeman watch your every move, he can yell at you, live, from the safety of the control room! "Hey! Pick up that candy wrapper! Yes, I mean you! That's right..." Winston Smith would feel right at home.