Today is the 25th anniversary of the internet (happy birthday, everyone). But its creator, Tim Berners-Lee, is disheartened with how easy it has become to invade our privacy on the World Wide Web. During a BBC interview, Berners-Lee said, "Are we going to continue on the road and just allow the governments to do more and more and more control – more and more surveillance? Or are we going to set up a bunch of values? Are we going to set up something like a Magna Carta for the world wide web and say, actually, now it's so important, so much part of our lives, that it becomes on a level with human rights?"
A quarter of a century on from its genesis, the internet stands in an uncertain place: essential to the everyday running of a modern world, but its original ideology compromised, hacked and torn apart. Rather than a place to share ideas and information, it's monitored and used by governments to exercise power and surveillance over citizens, turning it into a place to be disempowered. It's the ultimate Orwellian symbol – maybe the carefully depicted dystopia of 1984 was just thirty years off.
When Edward Snowden appeared at an SXSW conference, the world stopped to listen. "It's the development community that can really craft the solutions and make sure we are safe", he said, urging any developers listening to embed anti-surveillance code into apps or programs that they were working on.
That rush of traffic to listen to Snowden is indicative of how important this subject is to our world, right now. We all communicate, we all leave a digital footprint and as we're now all too aware, we're being watched while we do it. Orwell might have wagered that this manner of intrusion and surveillance would have arrived 30 years ago, but the themes that run through his seminal novel mirror the scrutiny that we find ourselves under in today's world. So let's take a look at the past – and specifically at a visionary trying to foresee the future.
These are a vital way for the Party to track citzens' activity. As 1984's protagonist Winston works, one of his primary concerns is that he's being watched by telescreens. In 2014, we conduct the majority of our communications with screens. They're the places where we pour out our hearts, share moments of intimacy and give away our financial details, with little idea of who else might be watching too. Towards the end of 1984, Winston realises that the Thought Police have watched his every thought and heard every utterance with far more intensity than he could have ever imagined. As for us, we're living in an age of transition. We're still coming to terms with the implications of living a life online and the revelations that our privacy has been surrendered. Two weeks ago it was revealed that the GCHQ program Optic Nerve intercepted 1.8 million images sent by Yahoo webcam users, a large number of which were sexually explicit. We are being watched, even when we're naked.
Orwell also included helicopters as a method of surveillance in his dystopia. These machines flew through the cities, looking in people's windows, checking for any violations or misdemeanours. Well we've got them now too – some of them capture images and record footage, others shoot missiles and kill people in wars that we don't know an awful lot about. However, Washington is on the verge of passing a bill that will regulate drone surveillance. That's something, I guess.
In 1984, all letters are opened and checked by the authorities. Private mail does not exist. This has immediate echoes of last year's revelations that the NSA are intercepting and reading not just emails, but chatroom conversations, text messages and the Facebook communications of people across the world. By the time you finish reading this article, GCHQ will have selected around 40 terabytes of data to review. That's around 10,000 two-hour movies worth of information. Speaking at SXSW, Julian Assange said that soon GCHQ will have the ability to spy on the entire planet. “The ability to surveil everyone on the planet is almost there, and arguably will be there in a few years,” he said. "We're moving into a new totalitarian world — not in the sense of Stalin or Pol Pot, but totalitarian in the sense that the surveillance is total.”
Do you think we live in an Orwellian dystopia?
Follow Thomas Gorton on Twitter here @angstromhoot