George Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1949, depicting a British society that is controlled closely by the government under 24-hour surveillance and is in a state of perpetual warfare. He coined the concepts of “newspeak”, where language has no nuances, “thoughtcrime”, where even certain thoughts are illegal, and “Big Brother” which has actually been popularised into a TV show. Most people who have read Nineteen Eighty-Four consider it dystopian fiction, a far cry from real world society, and an exaggerated metaphor to remind the world of totalitarianism. Its satirical look at British society is in Orwell’s own words a reminder “that totalitarianism, if not fought against, could triumph anywhere.”
The UK, along with the European Union, the United States, Australia and Canada, are considered paragons of democracy. They are the countries that make up the “Western World” that other countries aspire to and model themselves on. As citizens of one of these countries, we are free. In opposition to the world’s “free” countries, we have a new “Eastern bloc” which is considered to repress and restrict their populations. The freedom to express yourself is paramount and the internet has changed the way we do so. It has become possible to share our thoughts in an inordinate number of ways, receive commentary and still be able to defend them. The internet is a literal debating ground. But, is this enough?
The wikileaks revealing the true nature of the war in Iraq seems to be proof enough of what has and always will be hidden to the general public. The release of “detainees” (not “inmates” or “prisoners”) from Guantanamo Bay doesn’t nullify the torture of “detainees” in those prison camps in the heart of Afghanistan that haven’t yet been discovered. Recent acts of repression in the UK post the NUS protest such as the closure of the Fitwatch website and an anti-police blog are without question a violation of basic human rights. The way that information is now shared means that it is difficult to keep track on everything posted on the internet; information is not always correctly sourced and often factually incorrect, however, the citizens of any free country still have a right to their say, on the internet or otherwise.
This freedom of expression is however consistently undermined through our way of life in a country that captures every individual on CCTV as many as three hundred times a day. 10% (2.5m) of the world’s CCTV cameras are in the UK; this is as many as 1 for every 14 people. The lack of uniformity in the density of cameras around the UK clearly makes this statistic questionable, however, in a country which hosts 61 million, a mere 0.8% of the world’s population, this is still troubling. Although CCTV hasn’t yet extended to the private sphere, it seems this move is not far off. The advent of nanny and spy cameras, readily available, and made use of in reality TV (even those as seemingly harmless as What Not to Wear) seems to be a move in the wrong direction. Google maps’ “street view” is already causing concern in parts of the world, and the FCC is investigating Google for a breach of privacy. A pervasive, 360° camera allows people access to much of Europe, Northern America, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. Several countries have refused street view, constricting Google’s ability to show residents homes. The convenience of street view is not in question, however the breach of privacy that it perpetuates as normal is worrying. According to Article 8 of the European convention on Human Rights, a public body’s interference in private life must be explicitly explained and in the interests of the vast majority.
A well-educated and informed public should not be comfortable with 24-hour surveillance. If the UK has spent £500m of the public’s money on CCTV cameras and fewer than 1 in 1000 cameras has helped prevent crime, their argument falls flat. We are patronisingly told: CCTV is merely “for your own good”, a fail-safe method of preventing crime and yet the difficulty for the public to gain access to CCTV footage and the lack of real statistics proving its effectiveness make it seem like a voyeuristic social exercise, designed to slowly leech away the freedom that makes the UK a democratic country. The lack of regulation imposed upon this footage is also troubling. Although new legislation has been recommended, it has yet to be formalised, meaning that those monitoring CCTV footage work largely unmonitored:
Authorities such as local councils are free to install CCTV systems in town centres and other public places (such as residential estates) without prior approval from central government or the permission of residents.
Although new legislation is coming into being, the public should be aware of the current state of affairs allowing unchecked monitoring of vast expanses of the UK.
This article does not deny the many countries around the world where human rights violations are rampant, where the public does not have a say and the phrase “Orwellian state” may be better suited. However, the technology and resources at the UK’s disposal means that the beginnings of a police state are not just a possibility, but a distinct reality. The references to Nineteen Eighty-Four are frequent in this context but are they finally justified? 61 years after Orwell’s conceptualisation of a British police state, mass surveillance is in place. Big Brother is now CCTV, the “Ministry of Love” Guantanamo Bay and the idea that this is “for your own good” has resulted in the materialisation of an Electronic Police State.
- The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell. Volume 4 – In Front of Your Nose 1945–1950. p.546 (Penguin)