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Cohn writes: "Orwell never could have imagined that the National Security Agency (NSA) would amass metadata on billions of our phone calls and 200 million of our text messages every day."

The Government is capable of watching your every move in cyberspace. (photo: Shutterstock)
The Government is capable of watching your every move in cyberspace. (photo: Shutterstock)

Beyond Orwell's Worst Nightmare

By Marjorie Cohn, Reader Supported News

02 February 14


ig Brother is Watching You," George Orwell wrote in his disturbing book "1984." But, as Mikko Hypponen points out, Orwell "was an optimist." Orwell never could have imagined that the National Security Agency (NSA) would amass metadata on billions of our phone calls and 200 million of our text messages every day. Orwell could not have foreseen that our government would read the content of our emails, file transfers, and live chats from the social media we use.

In his recent speech on NSA reforms, President Obama cited as precedent Paul Revere and the Sons of Liberty, who patrolled the streets at night, "reporting back any signs that the British were preparing raids against America's early Patriots." This was a weak effort to find historical support for the NSA spying program. After all, Paul Revere and his associates were patrolling the streets, not sorting through people's private communications.

To get a more accurate historical perspective, Obama should have considered how our founding fathers reacted to searches conducted by the British before the revolution. The British used "general warrants," which authorized blanket searches without any individualized suspicion or specificity of what the colonial authorities were seeking.

At the American Continental Congress in 1774, in a petition to King George III, Congress protested against the colonial officers' unlimited power of search and seizure. The petition charged that power had been used "to break open and enter houses, without the authority of any civil magistrate founded on legal information."

When the founders later put the Fourth Amendment's prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures into the Bill of Rights, they were attempting to ensure that our country would not become a police state.

Those who maintain that government surveillance is no threat to our liberty should consider the abuse that occurred nearly 200 years later, when FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover conducted the dreaded COINTELPRO (counter-intelligence program). It was designed to "disrupt, misdirect, discredit and otherwise neutralize" political and activist groups. During the McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950s, in an effort to eradicate the perceived threat of communism, our government engaged in widespread illegal surveillance to threaten and silence anyone with unorthodox political views. Thousands of people were jailed, blacklisted, and fired as the FBI engaged in "red-baiting."

In the 1960s, the FBI targeted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in a program called "Racial Matters." King's campaign to register African-American voters in the South raised the hackles of the FBI, which disingenuously claimed that King's organization was being infiltrated by communists. But the FBI was really worried that King's civil rights campaign "represented a clear threat to the established order of the U.S." The FBI went after King with a vengeance, wiretapping his phones and securing personal information that it used to try to discredit him, hoping to drive him to divorce and suicide.

Obama would likely argue that our modern day "war on terror" is unlike COINTELPRO because it targets real, rather than imagined, threats. But, as Hypponen says, "It's not the war on terror." Indeed, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, an independent federal privacy watchdog, found "no instance in which the program directly contributed to the discovery of a previously unknown terrorist plot or the disruption of a terrorist attack."

The NSA spying program captures all of us, including European leaders, people in Mexico, Brazil, the United Nations, and the European Union Parliament, not just the terrorists. Although Obama assured us that the government "does not collect intelligence to suppress criticism or dissent," our history, particularly during COINTELPRO, tells us otherwise.

Obama proposed some reforms to the NSA program, but left in place the most egregious aspects. He said that the NSA must secure approval of a judge on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court before it gets access to the phone records of an individual. But that is a secret court, whose judges are appointed by the conservative Chief Justice John Roberts, and it has almost never turned down an executive branch wiretapping request since it was created in 1978. Most significantly, Obama did not say that surveillance without judicial warrants or individual suspicion should be halted.

"One of [Obama's] biggest lapses," a New York Times editorial noted, "was his refusal to acknowledge that his entire speech, and all of the important changes he now advocates, would never have happened without the disclosures by [Edward] Snowden, who continues to live in exile and under the threat of decades in prison if he returns to this country."

Snowden's revelations will reportedly continue to emerge. And you can bet that Orwell will continue to turn in his grave for a long time to come.

Click here for the NPR TED Radio Hour segment on privacy and the TEDTalks that inspired this post.

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A note of caution regarding our comment sections:

For months a stream of media reports have warned of coordinated propaganda efforts targeting political websites based in the U.S., particularly in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

We too were alarmed at the patterns we were, and still are, seeing. It is clear that the provocateurs are far more savvy, disciplined, and purposeful than anything we have ever experienced before.

It is also clear that we still have elements of the same activity in our article discussion forums at this time.

We have hosted and encouraged reader expression since the turn of the century. The comments of our readers are the most vibrant, best-used interactive feature at Reader Supported News. Accordingly, we are strongly resistant to interrupting those services.

It is, however, important to note that in all likelihood hardened operatives are attempting to shape the dialog our community seeks to engage in.

Adapt and overcome.

Marc Ash
Founder, Reader Supported News

+49 # Art947 2014-02-02 14:36
Calling John Roberts a conservative is akin to calling Charles Manson a family man!
+44 # James Marcus 2014-02-02 15:13
NSA….Nazis Revisited.
Not new. Just Revived, from Hitlers Escaped Remnants. Bush, etc…...
+41 # soularddave 2014-02-02 15:40
Invoking Paul Revere's "spying" is disingenius because it happened BEFORE the Constitution - duuh! B
BTW, the Red Coats WERE the enemy; not the revolutionaries .

This 'big brother looking over your shoulder' reference is really lame because what's going on now is more like an imposed colonoscopy.
+25 # cymricmorty 2014-02-02 16:12
Quoting soularddave: "This 'big brother looking over your shoulder' reference is really lame because what's going on now is more like an imposed colonoscopy."

Imposed colonoscopy using a fire hose.
+17 # futhark 2014-02-02 18:54
The time line here is not relevant. The rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights did not originate with that document. These rights are inherent (or "God given", if that is your preference)to humans and existed since before writing was invented. They are absolutely necessary for the functioning of any kind of democratic government, as they assure participants that they will not be punished for publicizing ideas that could be of benefit to society, or even just speculating and entertaining such notions. The Bill of Rights listing establishes these rights in a codified legal framework, but they are really pre-constitutio nal and extra-constitut ional.
+21 # rose528 2014-02-02 15:46
did you even read Orwell's book the ruling party had TV monitors and listening devises in their homes let alone listening to their phone calle
+7 # jwarndt 2014-02-02 20:16
Orwell's 1984 was also bleak and horribly impovrished after nuclear and biological warfare. And only Big Brother controlled the technology. This is not to justify in any way what the NSA has been doing, but social media was non-existant in Orwell's novel, and governments were not overthrown by flash mobs organized on twitter and facebook. If you're looking for a dystopian future to compare our world to, Huxley's Brave New World would be a better one, where Happy Pills like Prozac... excuse me... Soma kept the masses complacent. "A gram is better than a damn."
+3 # Even 2014-02-03 06:18
You might want to reread BNW. It's genetic engineering that keeps everyone in place, not the Soma.
-1 # jwarndt 2014-02-03 14:32
Quoting Even:
You might want to reread BNW. It's genetic engineering that keeps everyone in place, not the Soma.

Actually, it was both. Plus subliminal suggestions. "Sixty two thousand four hundred repetitions make one truth."

But I'm not unaware of how touchy some may be over comparisons of Soma to Prozac, so rest assured I understand your objections to my initial comment ;)
+2 # jwarndt 2014-02-03 14:48
“There will be, in the next generation or so, a pharmacological method of making people love their servitude, and producing dictatorship without tears, so to speak, producing a kind of painless concentration camp for entire societies, so that people will in fact have their liberties taken away from them, but will rather enjoy it, because they will be distracted from any desire to rebel by propaganda or brainwashing, or brainwashing enhanced by pharmacological methods. And this seems to be the final revolution.”
Speech by Aldous Huxley to the Berkeley Language center, 1962
+22 # 2014-02-02 15:56
The reason Orwell never imagined an NSA domestic surveillance program is because Orwell believed in common decency, while warning us of those who we sociopaths.
+21 # ericlipps 2014-02-02 17:13
The reason Orwell never imagined an NSA domestic surveillance program is because Orwell believed in common decency, while warning us of those who we sociopaths.

The reasons Orwell never imagined an NSA domestic surveillance program were that (1) Orwell was British, not American, and (2) more importantly, he wrote in an era long before modern computer technology allowed thoroughly automated total surveillance. Otherwise, I'm sure the totalitarian regime he imagined would have been shown using such methods.
+21 # treadlightly 2014-02-02 15:57
The balance of power that the framers of the Constitution had intended to last forever , has fallen slightly dead.
The camel no longer content to just poke his nose into the tent, has taken up residence on the sofa, and is defecating on the rug.
And that rug really tied the room together, did it not?
+15 # sunflower333 2014-02-02 17:08
How do we employ civilian authorities to stop domestic military wire tappers?

How do we stop global military violations of international privacy?

There are 700,000+ targets. The NSA is only part of the story.

Non-state independent actors have much to fear from one-world military empire.

This is not Orwellian science fiction. I am not asking rhetorical questions.
+10 # JohnBoanerges 2014-02-02 17:27
How? Let me suggest creative nonviolence. Let me suggest stop paying taxes (really, I stopped 30+ years ago), stop TAKING any "benefits" from the beast. Stop VOTING. Stop obeying 'them'. Join/support wagingnonviolen, warresisters.or g and worldbeyondwar. org. You have nothing to lose but your soul and the souls of the unborn/living children.
+12 # grandma lynn 2014-02-02 21:08
I heard on NPR today that two states' ballots include a choice: no one.
Better to vote for "no one" and make the two dominant parties see not what they might call apathy (if one doesn't vote) but rejection of them outright.
+6 # aaheart 2014-02-02 19:42
Due process and habeas corpus were deleted from the US Constitution by an illicit act of Congress and an illegitimate pseudo President. Minimally, all legislation and executive orders since the 2009 inauguration of Barry Soetoro is null ab initio...void from the git go.
+5 # Skippydelic 2014-02-02 20:20
I agree with the FIRST half of your comment...

We live in a post-9/11 world, one that Dubya and his neocon buddies ALLOWED - and WANTED - to happen!

Obama - for better or worse - has HAD to live with this 'new normal'! Look at the tightrope he HAS to walk: If Obama DOES follow the 'new normal', then he's accused of violating our civil rights! If he DOESN'T follow the 'new normal', and we get hit by a terrorist attack, he'd NEVER hear the end of the HOWLING about how he 'left us open' by NOT adequately 'protecting' us!

So Obama is trapped in a situation NOT of his own making, and either way, he's going to be vilified...
+2 # CTPatriot 2014-02-03 01:39
In other words, he's either a fraud or a coward.
+2 # John S. Browne 2014-02-04 00:56

Or he's both, which he is. But, even more than that, he's a complete sellout. He was groomed by "al CIAduh(!)" much if not almost his entire life in an "al CIAduh(!)" family; so he's a complete fraud; and, in order to be such a fraud, one has to be brainwashed and a total coward, not necessarily in that order. He was "Manchurianized " in preparation for the steps that his "New World Order (NWO)" puppetmasters want him to carry out, the next steps after what Bush 2 and his predecessors already carried out, in order to bring about the dismantling of U.S. sovereignty and bring about one-world government. That's what the so-called "trade" pacts are all about like the TPP. Global corporate control of the world and all countries by overriding their laws and independence, doing away with borders, making nation states "superfluous", and more and more getting them to bow to global government and enslavement.

+2 # John S. Browne 2014-02-04 00:57

It is the ultimate in corporate-fasci sm, many degrees larger than the Third Reich, each one a step towards the final one, the "Fourth Reich", which the corporate- fascists are bringing to fruition right now. If you think they want to "free" the world, think again. They want us all to be unquestioningly obedient slaves; and, by the look of most "Amerikans", they have already succeeded. Try talking to most "Amerikans" about what's really going on (if you already have, you know exactly what I'm getting at), they absolutely refuse to believe it's really happening, just as most of the "good Germans" in Germany refused to believe it was really happening until it was much too late. If it isn't already too late for the U.S., wake up "Amerika"! The so-called "good Americans", at all levels of society, are destroying us! Dear God, please save us from ourselves! Otherwise, the vast majority of us are fracked! Which side are YOU on (addressed to everyone)?

+19 # acomfort 2014-02-02 20:03
"Snowden's revelations will reportedly continue to emerge. And you can bet that Orwell will continue to turn in his grave for a long time to come."

The slow release of documents may be one of their greater accomplishments as it should curtail the propaganda coming from US officials because they don't know what may be released in the near future to prove them wrong and lying again.
+8 # John Judge 2014-02-02 20:27
Actually, Orwell's vision was more nightmarish. Not only could Big Brother hear every word you said using the telescreen, he could see everything you were doing unless you hid in a corner, and even then the ubiquitous helicopters might stare into your window and bark orders or a neighbor or child might report you as disloyal. Everyone distrusted everyone else, not just the state or its spying apparatus. The hidden telescreen in Winston's tryst room where he met Julia in secret finally made clear that he had been caught in his disloyalty. "You are the dead!" it barked, and he replied, "We are the dead." He had been reading from the Book of Revolution written by Emmanuel Goldstein (Snowden? Manning?) who was the target of the Hate gatherings. At the Ministry of Truth, Winston discovers that the Book of Revolution was written by the Party also. Julia had commented that the rocket bombs sounding beyond the city to show they were in perpetual war (though lied to about with whom) were also arranged by the Party. In the end, Winston betrays Julia and comes to love Big Brother. We are thankfully not quite there yet.
+7 # CTPatriot 2014-02-03 01:42
Though closer than you may indicate. Don't forget that they can already activate the cameras and mics on our smart phones even when the phones are turned off. That's not very different from the telescreen that can see everything. In fact, the telescreen was fixed. The smart phone follows you everywhere.
+2 # bmiluski 2014-02-03 09:39
The telescreen was mandatory. Your cell phone is not. Don't want to be followed?...... . get rid of your cell phone. You'd be surprised how much you DON'T "need" it.
0 # John S. Browne 2014-02-04 01:09

It seems like with most "Amerikans", we are there.

+18 # Vardoz 2014-02-02 20:50
The level of abuse towards the importance of our lives, our rights and protections and our health, safety and welfare is being totally ignored and is equal to Bush calling our big protest marches a focus group. We have been totally maginalized. What the 99% want, what is important to us and our concerns for our lives, civil liberties and rights have been totally ignored and mean nothing to these people.
+13 # Cirze 2014-02-02 22:51
I've read both Orwell and Huxley and do not believe either would be surprised at what the NSA has done with its accumulation of power. Both foretold current events.

I think writers should read the books before they think about quoting from them or having opinions published based on them.

But that's just me.
-2 # Kauai John 2014-02-04 02:27
So, how many believe that the George Washington Bridge scandal (Chris Christie, remember) would not have been revealed without the NSA?

Sure is fun to think about.

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