The ACLU is, not surprisingly, pretty alarmed about the Guardian’s revelation that the NSA has been collecting phone data from every Verizon call (and, for all we know, on all calls from other carriers as well). In a quote that’s receiving a lot of attention, Jameel Jaffer, the ACLU’s deputy legal director, describes the program as “beyond Orwellian.”
Orwellian? Sure — government surveillance was a main theme of Orwell’s 1984. But beyond Orwellian? Not even close. Let’s recall how the Thought Police of Oceania kept an eye on its citizens (aside from the proles, who lived in abject poverty and were largely ignored):
The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. 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. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live – did live, from habit that became instinct – in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.
In contrast, the NSA isn’t watching us or listening to the content of our phone calls. It’s collecting vast amounts of data about our calls — “the numbers of both parties on a call are handed over, as is location data, call duration, unique identifiers, and the time and duration of all calls,” according to the Guardian. Nor does the NSA’s surveillance program (as far as we know?) rely on the brainwashing of children:
The family could not actually be abolished, and, indeed, people were encouraged to be fond of their children, in almost the old-fashioned way. The children, on the other hand, were systematically turned against their parents and taught to spy on them and report their deviations. The family had become in effect an extension of the Thought Police. It was a device by means of which everyone could be surrounded night and day by informers who knew him intimately …
It was almost normal for people over thirty to be frightened of their own children. And with good reason, for hardly a week passed in which The Times did not carry a paragraph describing how some eavesdropping little sneak – ‘child hero’ was the phrase generally used – had overheard some compromising remark and denounced its parents to the Thought Police.
There are other key differences between the Thought Police’s spy program and the NSA’s — for example, the NSA is acting under the laws written by a democratically elected Congress, and is attempting to prevent terrorist attacks on American citizens, not stifle internal dissent against the government — but you get the point. Let’s give Orwell some credit — his dystopian surveillance state isn’t easy to top.