Big Brother is watching you

Illustration by Dan Nacu.

Maya White-Lurie
Guest Columnist

George Orwell screams at me as I log into Facebook.

Our world is quickly turning into that of “1984.” As America becomes Oceania, Orwell and I are frustrated that few seem to care.

While the comparison may seem extreme, consider the state of the surveillance in this country. America is not flooded with “thought police,” but recent revelations by Edward Snowden and the National Security Agency confirm we are constantly monitored.

This spying has escalated with the proliferation of technology and occurs without warrants, subpoenas, or  reasonable suspicion of illegal activity. It’s unconstitutional and morally objectionable, but few protested and the subject quickly passed.

It seems many have forgotten they are being watched, happy to return to posting selfies on Facebook and ogling cute pictures of cats, but I feel the burning eyes of federal spying on my back. We need to fight the systematic theft of our liberties and not allow ourselves to be distracted by Miley Cyrus’ VMA performance or the new iPhone.

In the same way Orwell’s Big Brother monitors everything, modern phones come with GPS chips and accelerometers that can be accessed by the government. They can know where you are and how fast you travel at any given moment. Also, the metadata from our phone calls (including the duration of calls and phone numbers of individuals involved in a call) and our Internet usage pass through federal intelligence channels.

Despite the Freedom of Information Act, we are not allowed to access the information the government collects about us. Those seeking to read their own files receive a form letter saying they probably do not have a file and that access to their own information could threaten national security. Free access to knowledge is a threat to national security, otherwise known as “Ignorance is Strength” and “Freedom is Slavery.”

While security is provided by our government, destruction of privacy is too high a price to pay. You might say you’re not doing anything wrong, so you’re not concerned about the government’s spying, but how would you feel if a police officer sat outside your window or stood over your shoulder, watching you surf the web?

Federal monitoring is less physically immediate, but no less intrusive. It denies the security of house, papers and effects promised in the Fourth Amendment and is already on the slippery slope to the censorship seen in modern fascist regimes and “1984.”

Interrogations of law-abiding Americans occur based on search and browser history. To my knowledge, no one has had a cage of hungry rats attached to their face, but searching pressure cookers and backpacks in the same day doesn’t warrant agents on your doorstep. Our searches are catalogued and used for profiling, and Google publicly admits that Gmail users have no reasonable expectation of confidentiality.

VCU students and staff cannot expect privacy in the email they are required to use for educational and professional purposes. Every email discussion we share with our professors and employers is screened by the government in an invasive and offensive waste of tax revenue.

Perhaps there’s no outrage on campus because it’s official correspondence, but it is still private and can edge into the personal, but it must be protected all the same.

We have come to expect surveillance cameras in public spaces. While they are the eyes of Big Brother, there is a difference between monitoring the public and private spaces. There is no expectation of privacy in public, but there is for emails, calls and most Internet usage. Everyone has private or selectively-revealed aspects of their lives. We must make filtering choices for ourselves rather than allowing the government to make them for us.

Even the terrifying telescreens that spout propaganda and record the lives of the citizens of Oceania are mirrored in America.

Almost every home has at least one TV broadcasting commercials and election advertisements meant to sway citizens. Web cameras are standard for most laptops and they can be activated by outside parties with the right hacking skills. While they’re not required, those without TVs or computers are considered strange or behind the times. The social impetus to keep up with technology is a powerful force.

The newly announced Xbox One caused a small stir when Microsoft revealed every console contains a heart rate monitor and perpetually-on microphone, even when the device is in sleep mode. Because the system is connected to the Internet, this information too could be accessed by federal monitors.

Big Brother is watching us, but I can’t stop surfing, clicking, and texting. Avoiding Big Brother isn’t as easy as deleting my profile or canceling my phone plan because technology’s ubiquity leads me to expect constant connection. My professors, bosses and coworkers provide essential information via email. My extracurricular groups, including activist and professional organizations, discuss, plan events, and make announcements almost exclusively through Facebook.

American society long ago passed the point of abandoning these technologies and devices will advance, as will our dependence on them.

If we don’t want to live in a society of Orwell’s creation, flooded with thought police and mandatory cameras in our homes, now is the time to defend what little security we have. If we do not establish reasonable guidelines and protections for privacy with the future in mind, the federal government will continue to bulldoze our liberties and build its all-seeing eye.

We must fight to regain the privacy to which the constitutional entitles us. Now is the time to write letters, make phone calls and create petitions to repeal current policies and deter the implementation of even more harmful ones. We must demand our privacy from our representatives and increased transparency from our government. If they don’t represent our interests, we must elect those who will. Such action requires great effort on the part of all of us, but we must enact change.

If unchecked, we face further descent into dystopia.

Maya White-Lurie is a senior English major and executive editor of Amendment literary journal.

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