George Orwell Predicted Cameras Would Watch Us in Our Homes; He Never Imagined We’d Gladly Buy and Install Them Ourselves

Normalization—the mainstreaming of people and ideas previously banished from public life for good reason—has become the operative description of a massive societal shift toward something awful. Whether it’s puff pieces on neo-Nazis in major national newspapers or elected leaders who are also documented sexual predators, a good deal of work goes into making the previously unthinkable seem mundane or appealing.

I try not to imagine too often where these things might lead, but one previously unthinkable scenario, the openly public mass surveillance apparatus of George Orwell’s 1984 has pretty much arrived, and has been thoroughly normalized and become both mundane and appealing. Networked cameras and microphones are installed throughout millions of homes, and millions of us carry them with us wherever we go. The twist is that we are the ones who installed them.

As comic Keith Lowell Jensen remarked on Twitter a few years ago, “What Orwell failed to predict is that we’d buy the cameras ourselves, and that our biggest fear would be that nobody was watching.” By appealing to our basic human need for connection, to vanity, the desire for recognition, and the seemingly instinctual drive for convenience, technology companies have persuaded millions of people to actively surveille themselves and each other. They incessantly gather our data, as Tim Wu shows in The Attention Merchants, and as a byproduct have provided access to our private spaces to government agents and who-knows-who-else.

Computers, smartphones, and “smart” devices can nearly all be hacked or commandeered. Former director of national intelligence James Clapper reported as much last year, telling the U.S. Senate that intelligence agencies might make extended use of consumer devices for government surveillance. Webcams and “other internet-connected cameras,” writes Eric Limer at Popular Mechanics, “such as security cams and high-tech baby monitors, are… notoriously insecure.” James Comey and Mark Zuckerberg both cover the cameras on their computers with tape.

The problem is far from limited to cameras. “Any device that can respond to voice commands is, by its very nature, listening to you all the time.” Although we are assured that those devices only hear certain trigger words “the microphone is definitely on regardless” and “the extent to which this sort of audio is saved or shared is unclear.” (Recordings on an Amazon Echo are pending use as evidence in a murder trial in Arkansas.) Devices like headphones have even been turned into microphones, Limer notes, which means that speakers could be as well, and “Lipreading software is only getting more and more impressive.”

I type these words on a Siri-enabled Mac, an iPad lies nearby and an iPhone in my pocket… I won’t deny the appeal—or, for  many, the necessity of connectivity. The always-on variety, with multiple devices responsible for controlling greater aspects of our lives may not be justifiable. Nonetheless, 2017 could “finally be the year of the smart home.” Sales of the iPhone X may not meet Apple’s expectations. But that could have more to do with price or poor reviews than with the creepy new facial recognition technology—a feature likely to remain part of later designs, and one that makes users much less likely to cover or otherwise disable their cameras.

The thing is, we mostly know this, at least abstractly. Bland bulleted how-to guides make the problem seem so ordinary that it begins not to seem like a serious problem at all. As an indication of how mundane insecure networked technology has become in the consumer market, major publications routinely run articles offering helpful tips on how “stop your smart gadgets from ‘spying’ on you” and “how to keep your smart TV from spying on you.” Your TV may be watching you. Your smartphone may be watching you. Your refrigerator may be watching you. Your thermostat is most definitely watching you.

Yes, the situation isn’t strictly Orwellian: Oceana’s constantly surveilled citizens did not comparison shop, purchase, and customize their own devices voluntarily. (It’s not strictly Foucauldian either, but has its close resemblances.) Yet in proper Orwellian doublespeak, “spying” might have a very flexible definition depending on who is on the other end. We might stop “spying” by enabling or disabling certain features, but we might not stop “spying,” if you know what I mean.

So who is watching? CIA documents released by a certain unsavory organization show that the Agency might be, as the BBC segment at the top reports. As might any number of other interested parties from data-hoarding corporate bots to tech-savvy voyeurs looking to get off on your candid moments. We might assume that someone could have access at any time, even if we use the privacy controls. That so many people have become dependent on their devices, and will increasingly become so in the future, makes the question of what to do about it a trickier proposition.

via Reddit

Related Content:

Read the CIA’s Simple Sabotage Field Manual: A Timeless, Kafkaesque Guide to Subverting Any Organization with “Purposeful Stupidity” (1944)

The Existentialism Files: How the FBI Targeted Camus, and Then Sartre After the JFK Assassination

Lynda Barry on How the Smartphone Is Endangering Three Ingredients of Creativity: Loneliness, Uncertainty & Boredom

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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  • Cal says:

    Not all of us comply.

    I do not have a TV – never, Smartphone, etc, LANDLINE only. I do have a computer. Outside of the computer on which I work, and which is not always connected to the internet, I refuse to pay for those domestic enemies and traitors to our nation UNLAWFUL and treasonous spying on us.

    I know that I am not the only one, but those that most of you that participate do so freely and of your own will. Since you want to be watched, “protected”, supervised, patted down (molestment), etc please feel free to move to another nation. Here we need Americans.

    Have you read the US Constitution? What about your state Constitution? Are you aware that they are the contracts and laws (supreme Law of this nation and highest Law of your state)? That those who serve within our governments – state and federal – are Oath bound to the US Constitution, to SUPPORT AND DEFEND it before the orders of sueriors and the duties of the position being occupied? Also those who serve within state governments have as their very first duty every day to support and defend the US Constitution, and then to do the same to their state Constitution? That every, or most every, election period there are Amendments added to the state Constitution which changes that contract – and if you believe that those that serve within your state are giving the people more power rather then grabbing more for themselves I have a few bridges to sell you.

    Do YOU know your duty as a JUROR? It is a critical step to keeping our freedom. Become an informed juror and then serve with pride and be resolute because the courts are corrupt. Are you aware that judges are NOT put into office for life? That they are ALLOWED to serve for life as long as they use the constitutionally required “good Behaviour” while serving. Big difference. The US Constitution and the state Constitutions say what “good Behaviour” is; it is doing their duties as constitutionally delegated, taking and KEEPING the Oath.

    Are you aware that all able-bodied Americans are the Militia of the serveral states? That you are constitutionally REQUIRED to be trained as the Congress requires the military to be trained, and educated in the US Constitution and your own state’s Constitution?

    Richard Henry Lee: “Whereas, to preserve liberty, it is essential that the whole body of the people always possess arms, and be taught alike, especially when young, how to use them; nor does it follow from this, that all promiscuously must go into actual service on every occasion. The mind that aims at a select militia, must be influenced by a truly anti-republican principle; and when we see many men disposed to practice upon it, whenever they can prevail, no wonder true republicans are for carefully guarding against it.” (1788, Initiator of the Declaration of Independence, and member of the first Senate, which passed the Bill of Rights)

    George Washington: “It may be laid down, as a primary position, and the basis of our system, that every citizen who enjoys the protection of a free government…, but even of his personal services to the defence of it, and consequently that the Citizens of America (with a few legal and official exceptions) from 18 to 50 Years of Age should be borne on the Militia Rolls, provided with uniform Arms, and so far accustomed to the use of them, that the Total strength of the Country might be called forth at Short Notice on any very interesting Emergency.” (“Sentiments on a Peace Establishment”, letter to Alexander Hamilton; “The Writings of George Washington”)

    President Andrew Johnson: “Outside of the Constitution we have no legal authority more than private citizens, and within it we have only so much as that instrument gives us. This broad principle limits all our functions and applies to all subjects.”

    What about the Grand Jury, Grand Jury Investigations, etc, understand that they are a tool of the people, NOT those who serve within our governments?

    Grand Jury – “The grand jury is mentioned in the Bill of Rights, but not in the body of the Constitution. It has not been textually assigned, therefore, to any of the branches described in the first three Articles. It is a constitutional fixture in its own right. In fact the whole theory of its function is that it belongs to no branch of the institutional government, serving as a kind of buffer or referee between the Government and the people”.
    “Thus, citizens have the unbridled right to empanel their own grand juries and present “True Bills” of indictment to a court, which is then required to commence a criminal proceeding. Our Founding Fathers presciently thereby created a “buffer” the people may rely upon for justice, when public officials, including judges, criminally violate the law.” (Misbehavior, “Good Behaviour” requirement)

    “The grand jury is an institution separate from the courts, over whose functioning the courts do not preside, we think it clear that, as a general matter at least, no such “supervisory” judicial authority exists. The “common law” of the Fifth Amendment demands a traditional functioning grand jury.”

    “Although the grand jury normally operates, of course, in the courthouse and under judicial auspices, its institutional relationship with the judicial branch has traditionally been, so to speak, at arm’s length. Judges’ direct involvement in the functioning of the grand jury has generally been confined to the constitutive one of calling the grand jurors together and administering their oaths of office. The grand jury’s functional independence from the judicial branch is evident both in the scope of its power to investigate criminal wrongdoing, and in the manner in which that power is exercised.”

    “The grand jury ‘can investigate merely on suspicion that the law is being violated, or even because it wants assurance that it is not.’ It need not identify the offender it suspects, or even “the precise nature of the offense” it is investigating. The grand jury requires no authorization from its constituting court to initiate an investigation, nor does the prosecutor require leave of court to seek a grand jury indictment. And in its day-to-day functioning, the grand jury generally operates without the interference of a presiding judge. It swears in its own witnesses and deliberates in total secrecy.”
    “Recognizing this tradition of independence, we have said the 5th Amendment’s constitutional guarantee presupposes an investigative body ‘acting independently of either prosecuting attorney or judge”

    “Given the grand jury’s operational separateness from its constituting court, it should come as no surprise that we have been reluctant to invoke the judicial supervisory power as a basis for prescribing modes of grand jury procedure. Over the years, we have received many requests to exercise supervision over the grand jury’s evidence-taking process, but we have refused them all. “it would run counter to the whole history of the grand jury institution” to permit an indictment to be challenged “on the ground that there was incompetent or inadequate evidence before the grand jury.” (Nor would it be lawful of them to do so.) Justice Antonin Scalia writing for the majority said In the Supreme Court case of United States v. Williams, 112 S.Ct. 1735, 504 U.S. 36, 118 L.Ed.2d 352 (1992) (end Grand Jury quote)


    What has this to do with what is going on with the UNLAWFUL spying, etc on Americans? If you do not know what our government can LAWFULLY do, then how will you recognize treason, and other crimes against the American people, our country, our legitimate government?

    There is NOT one person who serves within the NSA, FBI, CIA, other “intelligence” agencies whose actions are at the least that of a domestic enemy of our nation, and quite often is treason. They too are bound by that Oath, and they break it daily if not hourly in pretty much everything they do.

    George Washington: “A free people ought not only be armed and disciplined, but they should have sufficient arms and ammunition to maintain a status of independence from any who might attempt to abuse them, which would include their own government.”

    Instead of dismantling historic monuments, it should be the buildings that house the NSA, TSA, CIA, FBI, etc that are dismantled. Those people fired and those that were only domestic enemies kicked out forever from our nation to never be allowed back in for ANY reason. Those that are found to be traitors must be punished for their crimes AGAINST the American people, this nation, this constitutional republic.

  • Security nerd says:

    I should point out that this piece is published on a site that does not support https (your traffic is unencrypted) and has 17!! trackers. Everyone from Google to Chinese intelligence knows who you are and that you’re reading this. Fix your own site first!

  • Paul Atriedes says:

    Ty ty ty! That was one of the most informative pieces I’ve read in a long time! That should be an article not buried in the comments! Bravo! And thank you again I only hope the few red blooded Americans left are able to lay eyes on this information! It is solid and will benefit ALL who read it!
    Amen and God bless you and God bless this USA!

  • Lux says:

    I did my own testing with a cheap $5 microphone element, a single transistor preamplifier I built and a $15 USB audio adapter (turns audio into mp3 files. The one little mic can pick up in about 80% of my house. I would guess that actual engineers who intended to do this would have much better results than I had. It’s all here including the MP3 files:

    Multiple pages

  • Randy says:

    This blog post brings up a thought-provoking observation about the evolution of surveillance technology. George Orwell’s predictions were indeed ahead of his time, and it’s fascinating to reflect on how our perception of privacy has shifted. The widespread acceptance and voluntary installation of cameras in our homes highlight the complex dynamics between security, convenience, and personal choice. It’s important to critically examine the implications and strike a balance between the benefits of surveillance and the need for privacy. The rapid advancement of technology continues to challenge our notions of privacy, making it an ongoing and crucial discussion. Thank you for sharing this intriguing perspective!

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