Kissinger and Orwell were right

Whatever you think of Henry Kissinger (and reading Christopher Hitchens book The Trial of Henry Kissinger suggests war crimes might be part of the thinking process) he did have a great way with quotes. For instance: Power is the great aphrodisiac and; best of all, just because you’re paranoid it doesn’t mean you’re not being persecuted (or have enemies in various attributions). Equally quotable, and one of the great English stylists as well as a towering moral force, George Orwell, made vivid the persecution which comes with all-seeing surveillance.

It turns out both were right – Orwell in his nightmares and Kissinger in his dreams. Bruce Schneier, author and publisher of the best newsletter on surveillance, secrecy and security has demonstrated just how right in an essay in his latest newsletter(>.) More newsletters are available at (>.). The latest newsletter contains an article, Our Internet Surveillance State, detailing just how much we get watched, tracked and analysed at almost every point in our lives. The watching includes tracking purchases, Facebook activity, hacker identification, intimate profiling, travel tracking, the general disappearance of privacy and much, much more.

In one vivid example Schneier recounts how the scandal about David Petraeus got discovered. He says: “Paula Broadwell, who had an affair with CIA director David Petraeus, ……… took extensive precautions to hide her identity. She never logged in to her anonymous e-mail service from her home network. Instead, she used hotel and other public networks when she e-mailed him. The FBI correlated hotel registration data from several different hotels — and hers was the common name.”  (If you want to quote Schneier, by the way, he gives permission to re-produce material but prefers you reproduce the whole article. We’ve always thought the link does this and we suggest following the example.)

What adds a new twist to the Orwellian nightmare is that the disappearance of privacy is not just a product of state intrusion but rather of an unholy combination of states, companies and hackers individual and national. Once it was a case of good guys trying to stay in front of bad guys in the online world but now it’s getting harder to tell the difference.

The blog recently visited Orwell’s home in Katha in Myanmar, site of the events which prompted his book Burmese Days. It is a bit dilapidated and no doubt neither the independence leaders, nor the military junta which took over after a coup, had much interest in restoring the temporary abode of a colonial officer and foreign writer. Yet, reading Schneier, perhaps the dilapidation is an apt metaphor for the sort of society Orwell aspired for and the new surveillance reality an illustration of what he warned us about.