In the classic novel of George Orwell, ‘1984’, written in 1949, a dystopia is portrayed with ever looming and omnipresent surveillance which constantly follows your footsteps with every action you take, done through the use of so called ‘telescreens’, ‘thought police’ and microphones. Many of these techniques of control seemed unlikely and improbable back when it was written, but they still serve for a frightening thought. Fast forward roughly 70 years, and what was then merely a frightening concept, is now a reality. Maybe minus of a totalitarian government.
Anything you type or search on the internet will be stored indefinitely and this data can be used to build up an online profile based on your interests to supply to third party advertisement agencies. The major players in this are for example Google, Facebook, and Amazon. These services are now so incorporated in everyday life that hundreds of millions of people use them, and are provided for free. These companies however, make billions and billions of revenue. In 2014, Google made $60 billion dollar revenue. Anything you search for in Google is the input of your interest, anything you write down on Facebook is personal, and again, of interest to you, and anything you buy on Amazon shows your consumer pattern. This information that identifies you as you is worth gold to advertisers, and that is why these sites are free to use.
From a capitalist standpoint many of these companies have built their business strategy around violating consumer privacy as a means of production. According to Fuchs, Google portrays itself as a major player in the technological advancement of this age by providing tools which society has much to gain from, but “at the level of the relations of production, Google is a profit-orientated, advertising-financed moneymaking machine that turns users and their data into a commodity” and that this juxtaposition shows the “capitalist relations of production of the information economy” (Fuchs, 2012). And according to Marx, capitalism could never be just and that “the whole essence of capitalism is that it forcibly submits the vast majority of any given society to implicit consent to the injustices that are committed against them” (Ravenhill, 2014). In this case, any user of these major players on the internet are forced to submit their privacy and identity due to their business model.
A fun and frightening little example to show how much data is being collected about you unknowingly is by showing a feature of the Apple iPhone that’s hidden in its settings.
Deep in the privacy settings of the phone you can find a record of all the places you’ve been and at what times you arrived and left. You can check for yourself by following these steps:
Go to your Settings, then click on Privacy, followed by Location Services, scroll down to System Services, scroll down to Frequent Locations, and open History.
Apple says this data is collected “in order to learn places that are significant to you” and help improve their apps with this data, but that nobody else can access or look at it. However, it also mentions it is possible to use the location services in emergency situations even though you might have turned it off.
But is this true? Can nobody actually open, access, look, or use your data?
We know by now that a full profile of our life is available if you’re registered on Facebook, we also know that all your interests, preferences, and searches have been logged and stored, and that all the geographical locations where you have been hanging out have been stored on your cell phone, which is basically your whole identity.
In 2013, a former National Security Agency employee named Edward Snowden released a massive amount of highly classified files. These files showed that there are many global surveillance programs run by many governments which collect data on all citizens over the world. What was revealed is that they have the technology to acquire everything about you, that they already did this, and have your information in so called meta-data. However, they need approval from the courts to look in to this data. The information is collected to protect national security and to identify criminal activity and terrorism. This, of course, led to outrage from all the communities around the world and questioned the authority of the NSA and other intelligence agencies and their power to execute these decisions without knowledge of it in the public sphere.
You may say that you have nothing to hide and that you’re not a criminal, but as a matter of fact you don’t get to decide if you’re a criminal. Just as in Orwell’s ‘1984’, the government gets to decide what being a criminal entails. And I’m not saying that our future will become like Orwell’s dystopia, but under the threat of terrorism, governments justify their need to increase surveillance. The Chief Constable of the Greater Manchester Police says and warns that “There is a danger of us being turned into a ‘thought police’” as acceptable free speech has not been defined properly in the face of terrorist threats (Awford, 2014).
Mario van der Meer
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Awford, J. (2014). “Britain is in danger of becoming a police state because of threat of home-grown extremists, warns chief constable”. Daily Mail, 12 December.
Fuchs, C. (2012). Google Capitalism. tripleC, 10(1), pp. 42-48.
Ravenhill, J. (2014). Global Political Economy, Oxford University Press 2014, Oxford, pp. 44.