George Orwell gave the world a chilling picture of totalitarianism in his novel “1984,” in which the government uses any number of methods, but notably technology, to spy on its own citizens. The prescient Englishman painted an ominous world view that resonates today in our democracy.
Recent revelations about the National Security Agency gaining unrestrained access to the phone records and emails of American citizens are worthy of a chapter in Orwell’s classic.
Meanwhile, airborne drones are used for civilian surveillance by domestic police agencies. In their armed version they are a centerpiece of the administration’s war on terror, used to seek out and execute terrorists and, inadvertently, an occasional civilian, in Muslim nations.
Another scary sign: The U.S. Supreme Court ruled early this month that American citizens can be required to surrender DNA swabs to the authorities after being arrested — but before being tried and convicted.
Remote police and security cameras are a heightened presence. That includes the streets of Charleston, where City Council recently endorsed the acquisition of a big new mobile camera to help police keep a close eye on crowd events or in high crime areas.
Richland County even has its own surveillance drone.
Of course, heightened security has its positive purposes. We can all cheer when police capture a bank robber — after he is first captured on the bank’s camera. But there’s a price to be paid for the ever-expanding blanket of official surveillance, particularly at the amazingly sophisticated level practiced by the NSA.
Privacy is becoming almost a quaint concept under the all-seeing eye of Leviathan.
In Orwell’s Stalinist dystopia, “Big Brother” was the overarching authority that kept an eye on every aspect of individual life for the collective purposes of the state.
Constant surveillance, of course, is necessary for security. The more security, the safer that citizens become. It’s all for the common good. What’s to complain about?
Plenty. On the 110th birthday of George Orwell this week, “1984” has been riding a surge of new popularity. It was No. 72 on Amazon’s best-seller list this week.
America might be yet a long way from “1984,” but the erosion of personal privacy via technology should be viewed with concern in a nation that cherishes its hard-fought liberties.
You might say the situation is quickly becoming almost too Orwellian for words.