In the US, according to The Washington Post and others, the government “has been able to secretly spy on its citizens through their computer’s webcams for several years” (FBI’s search for ‘Mo,’ suspect in bomb threats, highlights use of malware for surveillance, December 6, 2013). The revelations of Edward Snowden, of course, not only verified these facts, but have revealed a level of government surveillance that goes way beyond.
In an interview with the BBC’s ‘Panorama’, Snowden revealed “that government spies can legally hack into any citizen’s phone to listen into what’s happening in the room, view files, messages and photos, pinpoint exactly where a person is (to a much more sophisticated level than a normal GPS system), and monitor a person’s every move and every conversation, even when the phone is turned off” (Edward Snowden’s New Revelations Are Truly Chilling, Zero Hedge, October 8, 2015). Orwell’s Big Brother was an amateur in comparison to the Big Brother that is watching us.
Not convinced yet? Well, do you have a Facebook account? Because again according to International Business Times, “Facebook is tracking which sites its 800 million users [now more] visit – even after they have signed out” (Is Facebook Tracking You Online?, November 16, 2011). And it’s not only Facebook, tons of other companies “use Facebook’s platform as a way to track you” as well.
And while it watches everything you do, it in fact controls what you see. In February 2012, Facebook allowed scientists to conduct a mass experiment in “psychological manipulation on 700,000 users without consent, to see if it was possible to manipulate their moods” by controlling the posts that users would see (How Facebook’s news feed controls what you see and how you feel, New Statesman, June 30, 2014). How about that for thought-control? Similar allegations of selective censorship have been made against Facebook, by various organisations, on numerous occasions — some have already been proven to be correct.
People are already cautious about the deteriorating privacy that has now become universal. But what many don’t realise is that privacy is actually correlated with freedom. Just think about it. Many countries in the world still have oppressive regimes that don’t take dissent lightly. Not only is it risky for someone under such a regime to express dissatisfaction with the state, but they cannot even do it privately, in fear of who might be watching or listening. If that’s not Orwell’s thought-control, I don’t know what is.
Then there are the more overt forms of though-control and censorship that is being put into place. The Digital Security Act, 2016, in Bangladesh, is a perfect example. As experts have already pointed out, the act will shrink space for intellectual discourse and promote self-censorship (Digital Security Act, 2016: How does it affect freedom of expression and the right to dissent?, The Daily Star, October 29). In some cases, it completely outlaws discussions on topics that are essential for determining the nation’s history and even its future.
And as Orwell wrote, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” Worryingly, it is that right of ours that is being taken away from us everywhere, both overtly and covertly. In most cases, in the authorities’ own words, “to protect the people from terrorism”. But as one of the founding fathers of what I believe ‘was’, and most people think ‘is’, the freest country in the world, America, Benjamin Franklin said, “Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.”
And that is exactly what has been happening, with Europe being the perfect example. Even with all its excessive surveillance, why has Europe failed so miserably to prevent so many terror attacks on its soil, if that was not the case? It is because as numerous experts have already pointed out, including the father of all whistleblowers, one of the former top men in the National Security Agency, William Binney, large scale meta-data collection of every individual cannot be processed in time, ever, to stop terror attacks or any other crime for that matter.
Yet, governments around the world keep insisting on its population submitting data after data to government agencies. Just think about the recent bio-metric registration drive in this country. Why is it that I, as a sovereign being, have to submit my fingerprints (and all the other information) to a centralised authority just to be able to have the luxury of using a cell-phone? What if that information ever fell into the wrong hands? What if I just don’t want to submit it? Do I have the freedom any longer to not do it and still use a cell-phone? No!
And who is to guarantee that all governments of this country that I will have to live under — present and future — will be benign enough not to misuse it? Or use it against me, for one reason or another, including for dissent?
There is none. And that is another part of this trend. While people are being watched everywhere, listened to, and being forced to submit their data just to have some of the most basic rights within a civilised society, governments and other centres of power are becoming more and more secretive. Accountability and transparency is becoming nonexistent when it comes to the powerful. Indemnity laws, national security issues, etc., are being used as excuses to hide what the centres of power are actually up to, and how exactly, from the public. Meanwhile, our privacies, along with our freedoms, are slowly being taken away from us, without many of us really noticing much.
And the truth is, both of these are essential in any civilised society. Because as Justice Louis Brandeis, credited for developing the ‘right to privacy’ concept once said, “The most cherished right among all civilised men is the right to be left alone.” And a society which does not cherish that right enough to force a reversal in the trend of increasing surveillance is clearly not civilised enough to realise why it must.
The writer is a member of the Editorial team at The Daily Star.