NSA-style monitoring of our ever-more digital lives is beyond even George Orwell's disturbing vision. It's also less effective in tracking the true enemies of the state.
PARIS — George Orwell's masterwork, 1984, depicts life in England 30 years after a nuclear war between the East and the West, under a totalitarian regime symbolized by posters reminding everyone that "Big Brother is watching you." The powers-that-be keep a close eye on everybody's comings and goings thanks to ubiquitous telescreens, a sort of television-and-camera that can both broadcast the state's propaganda and spy on people in their homes.
Seventy years after it was published, this extraordinary futuristic novel has become the emblem of ever-widening surveillance measures, increasingly adopted by Western countries after each new Islamist terrorist attack: New York in September 2001, Madrid in March 2004, London in July 2005, Paris in January 2015 â€¦
In June 2013, Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the excesses of the National Security Agency's mass surveillance program operated by the United States. These included the bugging and recording of all telephone conversions in some countries, access to Internet users data (stored by Apple, Facebook, Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft and others), the tapping of transatlantic fiber-optic cables, email and forums monitoring, the installation of spyware on routers sold abroad, and so on.
Strangely enough, the revelation that these big ears were eavesdropping on Angela Merkel and François Hollande only prompted feeble reactions from the German and French leaders. This only makes you wonder if all democratic government don't actually dream of having such tools at their own disposal — tools allegedly capable of targetting anybody on the planet in the name of the fight against terrorism. Or indeed, for industrial espionage purposes.
But the worst part of it all is that we, the everyday users, are almost passive accomplices in this, since we're feeding part of these files ourselves with the way we rely daily on digital devices and services.
The symbolic force of 1984 remains unrivaled, but on a purely technical level, George Orwell's novel has long been outdated. How did we get there? Perhaps, history will eventually look back at March 30, 1981, as the day when everything changed. That was when John Hinckley, a mentally disturbed man, tried to assassinate U.S. President Ronald Reagan.
Oceans of noise
Admiral John Poindexter, then a top White House advisor and former expert in the hunt of Soviet submarines, started to reflect with other civil servants on the concept of "pre-crisis management," and of the fight against terrorism. At that time already, the admiral's team formulated the hypothesis that an ambitious project to analyze data could reveal the potential dangers to come.
After the 9/11 attacks, admiral Poindexter had no trouble convincing the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to place him at the helm of a crazy project, "Total Information Awareness." "If terrorist organizations are going to plan and execute attacks against the United States, their people must engage in transactions and they will leave signatures in this information space," Poindexter wrote back in 2002 as he explained his wish to gather all the world's databases. "It is somewhat analogous to the anti-submarine warfare problem of finding submarines in an ocean of noise — we must find the terrorists in a world of noise."
Officially, the Total Information Awareness project was stopped after a year-and-a-half. But the Snowden revelations showed that the NSA has achieved far more than Poindexter could have imagined in his wildest dreams, at least as far as data collection is concerned. It is a feat that must be placed in the context of a much longer history.
From the second half of the 19th century, states have tried to collect as much information as possible on their populations," says André Vitalis, who this year co-authored with Armand Mattelart Le Profilage des Populations ("Profiling Populations"). "After that, computers have made it possible to profile all citizens with the information they were themselves giving away. But at least they knew about it and were able to react. Now, in the digital world, data is collected automatically and secretly."
Philosopher Eric Sadin, author of La Vie Algorithmique ("The Algorithmic Life"), says the other great difference with Orwell's vision is that the regime of 1984 was built of a binary state-citizen system. "(Now the surveillance is being done by a myriad of private companies," notes Sadin. "And in the future, connected objects will make it even worse. Every little thing we do will be registered."
If scaremongering and long lists of reasons to worry have been thriving since the appearance of computers and the Internet, another question is rarely asked: Are these systems of widespread surveillance efficient against terrorism? The answer is perhaps not.
"Ultimately, one single "conspiracy" has been foiled in more than ten years of massive data collection of U.S. telephone communications — and that was a San Diego inhabitant who was arrested for sending $8,500 to a Somalian militant group," claims Grégoire Chamayou, a researcher at France's National Centre for Scientific Research, in an article published this year in La Revue du Crieur.
Orwell's Thought Police were far more efficient.