Scott McNealy, founder of Sun Microsystems, once said of individual privacies, "You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it." It seems timely to revisit McNealy's suggestion in the wake of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden's revelations about the U.S government's data collection and surveillance programs, news that seems to render moot any arguments as to the invalidity of McNealy's privacy assessment.
George Orwell's novel 1984 was assigned reading in my junior high school, and I was terrified by its stark, dark, dystopian vision of a society ("Oceania") ruled by "Big Brother." Big Brother is, ostensibly, the Oceanian government. And, in 1984, Big Brother controls everything, including the way its citizenry thinks. Among Big Brother's most critical tools for controlling its citizens are its far-reaching spying capabilities; Big Brother knows virtually every action or thought its citizens engage in.
Frighteningly, our society is beginning to look a lot like Orwell's Oceania. Oceania is constantly engaging in an alternating process of war and peace-making with its two rival republics for reasons that are vague and beyond substantiation by a citizenry who are fed a steady diet of propaganda by Oceania's Ministry of Truth. Big Brother is able to watch its public via ubiquitous "telescreens," two-way transmitting flat screen televisions that are mounted on the walls everywhere. The "Proles," the Proletariat 85 percent of Oceania's citizens who are uneducated and considered lower classes, are held in check with bread and circus entertainment and threats of external terrorism, which Big Brother purports itself to protect them from. The middle classes, who number substantially seven to 14 percent of the citizenry, are educated and know the deceptions Big Brother institutes to maintain its power, but they are a minority controlled by their fear of being vaporized by Big Brother. There is a minority elite (the one-percenters?) in Oceania who controls everything for their benefit, including Big Brother.
The protagonist in 1984 is a character named Winston Smith. Smith is a member of the middle class who works at the Ministry Of Truth editing past and present newspaper articles and photographs to match Big Brother's currently held beliefs and policies, and erase those people Big Brother has vaporized or made a, "non-person" (a citizen who has broken the law and been vaporized is deemed to have never existed, and is erased from all public records). Smith holds negative beliefs about Big Brother, a crime punishable by death if he is found out by the Thought Police, and eventually he is emboldened to engage in espionage and attempts to disseminate truth about Big Brother and its policies of perpetual war. Smith is unsuccessful, however, and he is turned over to the authorities, which torture him as part of Big Brother's efforts to re-educate and then re-assimilate him into society.
Sound familiar? Edward Snowden is our non-fiction version of Winston Smith. Snowden is in hiding, apparently in fear for his life or for what will become of his life at the hands of the U.S. authorities. When asked what will become of him if caught, one of Snowden's peers, a government whistleblower by the name of William Binney, said this in response (compliments of The Atlantic): "first tortured, then maybe even rendered and tortured and then incarcerated and then tried and incarcerated or even executed."
Apparently Edward Snowden is willing to pay a heavy toll to protect our privacies, while we are willing to give them away for free.
That, perhaps, is the saddest truth in all of this.