The man sat on the floor, awkwardly wedged into the far corner of his apartment, his knees drawn up under his chin. The faltering light from the dirty window barely illuminated the book balanced on his knees. Periodically he bent closer to see the words as he scrawled out his thoughts with a dull pencil.
This was the only way he could express himself beyond the scrutiny of government surveillance that sought to know and record his every thought and action.
You may recognize this scene, one of the most arresting from George Orwell’s dystopian fiction classic, Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith was breaking the law by seeking privacy outside the range of the “telescreen” in his apartment.
In an irony that would no doubt give Orwell grim satisfaction in his own prescience, Britons today are being pursued and prosecuted under an Act of Parliament designed to curb terrorism … for failing to pay a license fee for the televisions in their own homes.
Big Brother is Watching You
Orwell wrote soon after the invention of the television, which he envisaged as having evolved into an all-seeing two-way surveillance and propaganda device — the telescreen. It subjected viewers to constant hectoring demands for obedience, and reported their every move to Big Brother, the avatar of the all-seeing surveillance state.
The fact that the novel is set in a future (and fictional) Britain only heightens the irony of recent revelations in the UK. The government of Tory Prime Minister David Cameron has been using surveillance powers designed for the “War on Terrorism” to ferret out Britons who have not paid their hated “TV License,” a £145.50 ($220) annualtax imposed on every home containing a set in the country.
Her Majesty’s government clearly takes this odious little tax very seriously … so much so that the BBC is using the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) — designed to catch terrorists and Internet criminals — to track down people who dodge the license fee.
About 200,000 people were prosecuted for failing to buy a TV license between 2012 and 2013. More than 50 of those were sent to prison, and many others received penalties of up to £1,000 and a criminal record.
We can assume that none of them were terrorists — just ordinary subjects who dislike stupid taxes.
Freedom is Slavery
Orwell wrote with extraordinary perception and clarity, taking as his central theme the ways in which government’s attempts to serve its citizens are inevitably turned against us. Any policy, program or technique developed to “protect our freedoms” will be used to achieve the opposite.
Orwell would recognize the absurd irony of the situation in Western countries following the recent atrocities in Paris targeting the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. In response to these terror attacks, David Cameron has effectively launched a war against encryption, deeming private communication too great a threat to afford to keep as it prevents government from tracking and monitoring potential terrorists.
After loud protestations for “freedom of speech” following a terrorist attack on a magazine, our leaders barely pause for breath before demanding even greater surveillance powers than they already have — powers that, as Winston Smith knew, turn us all into self-censoring drones, fearful of saying or doing something that might offend Big Brother.
Today anti-terrorism laws are being used to enforce petty taxes. How will the new rules and capacities that inevitably emerge from the “je suis Charlie” hysteria in Paris be deployed? We can imagine, as Orwell surely would, that the end result will be the opposite of the stated intention: Freedom will indeed become slavery.
“You’re On Your Own”
The more I research and write about personal and financial privacy, the more I turn instinctively to this phrase. In a world where government is the principal enemy, no one but ourselves will meet our needs for sovereign independence of thought and action. It is truly up to us.
Every bit of information about you out there in the cloud — the details of your lives and finances, triumphs and defeats, plans and dreams — is a target. If otherwise law-abiding Britons can go to jail over a petty tax, courtesy of surveillance powers grabbed in the name of fighting terrorism, imagine what can and will happen if the government decides to turn its attention to you.
This is why, now more than ever, you need to take concrete steps to secure your privacy … not just from crooks, but from the greatest enemy of freedom there is: the government.
By using techniques of encryption (while it’s available), secure end-to-end communication and identity masking, you can become a free and sovereign man or woman, because you control the knowledge available about you.
But you’ve got to start now … before it’s too late.
Offshore and Asset Protection Editor