“Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it, moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment.”
That passage is from George Orwell’s 1984, where Winston Smith, the main character, lives in a dystopian society where a mysterious figure called Big Brother watches over everyone and everything and curtails free human will. Although the novel was first published in 1949, Orwell’s vision of a dystopian future is hauntingly plausible, and signs pointing in that direction are subtly starting to emerge.
In the recent issue of Wired, an American magazine that focuses on technological trends and their impact on society, there was a lengthy article written by James Bamford regarding the construction of a massive $2 billion dollar building located in a desolate valley in a Utah town called Bluffdale. The article is entitled “The NSA Is Building the Country’s Biggest Spy Center (Watch What You Say)”, and it goes into extensive detail about how the National Security Agency (NSA) is building an enormous data center intended to intercept, decipher, analyze and store swarms of data that is transmitted through the countless communications systems around the world.
Bottomless databases will be able to house emails, phone calls, text messages, personal data and even what we search on Google. Soon, every thought, whisper and idea that would conceivably fade away after communicating will be caught by a massive electronic net and heard by the shady, silhouetted figures in the country’s biggest “Spy Center.” The old adage “Silence is Golden” applies more than ever.
Although officials have stated that the center will also be used to decipher and decrypt codes picked up from threatening sources, the entire surveillance concept on private individuals is rather frightening. America was founded on individual freedom, and since then, it has been a cherished and grateful quality that defines its culture. Other countries with totalitarian governments have had tumultuous histories and low stability.
While this notion of surveillance has been around for quite some time, it has never gone this far. The amount of data that the Utah center can store is startling. In terms of technology alone, a terabyte of data can now be stored in a flash drive the size of a lighter. The data center encompasses over one million square feet that contain enormous server rooms to store this information. Every word communicated may soon find its way into these dark rooms.
In a society where the federal government is involved in so many secret operations, it seems intrusive that they will be able to develop fully detailed profiles of individuals. The article tells of ex-NSA crypto-mathematician named William Binney, who left the agency because he believed it was unconstitutional in its actions after launching a warrantless wiretapping program after 2001. With all this personal information at the fingertips of the NSA, Binney foresees what they may do with that data: bookstore receipts, travel patterns, bank statements, personal preferences and other various data can be charted on a graph to give the agency a detailed portrait of a person’s individual life.
Down the road, the implications of this intrusive surveillance are uncertain. Pessimists may imagine a volatile America in the future. Some have even compared these small signs of government control to the signs that eventually led to the Holocaust. On the online website for Wired, a man named Mark Newell framed a common American mind-set under a comment section for the article:
“The new iPad was released!” wrote Newell. “Snooky had a meltdown! My Mac Pro is awesome! These trinkets that keep us giggling and focused on nothing, this addiction to instant gratification, this will be our downfall. There’s a storm brewing.”
Perhaps there is a storm brewing. Perhaps George Orwell’s dark vision of a dystopian society with omnipresent surveillance may not be as farfetched as it once was. Maybe we will be like Winston Smith, walking around with Big Brother’s haunting, lingering eyes upon us. It may be scary to think about, but it certainly isn’t implausible.