UN Privacy Chief Says Government Surveillance Already Worse Than Orwell’s 1984

Carey Wedler


According to the United Nation’s first privacy chief, government surveillance has reached heights worse than imagined in George Orwell’s iconic book 1984. The situation is so dire, in fact, that while speaking to the Guardian this week, Privacy Chief Joseph Cannataci even called for a “Geneva Convention-style” law to protect internet security. The fact that he alluded to a law created to avenge Nazi war crimes in order to exemplify the severity of privacy violations, highlights how egregious the problem has become.

Cannataci was appointed to the position in July amid concerns that the first-choice candidate would not be tough enough on the United States. However, Cannataci, a former a professor of technology law at University of Groningen in the Netherlands and a department chair of Information Policy & Governance at the University of Malta, believes the United Kingdom engages in the most invasive spying – even worse than the United States’ infamous violations.

While the U.S. is not to be excused for its long-standing mass surveillance of innocent American citizens across a variety of bureaucracies, Cannatacisaid that in the U.K., “It’s worse” than 1984. “Because if you look at CCTV alone, at least Winston [the novel’s protagonist] was able to go out in the countryside and go under a tree and expect there wouldn’t be any screen, as it was called. Whereas today there are many parts of the English countryside where there are more cameras than George Orwell could ever have imagined. So the situation in some cases is far worse already,”he said.

Cannataci was alluding to the British government’s widespread use of surveillance cameras. According to the British Security Industry Authority, there is one camera for every eleven citizens. Further, the U.K. government has aggressively moved to ban all forms of encrypted communication. Prime Minister David Cameronasked earlier this year: “In our country, do we want to allow a means of communication between people which […] we cannot read?” He continued, “My answer to that question is: No, we must not.”

However, Canantaci’s concerns extend far beyond British violations. His official purpose is multi-pronged. As the Guardian summarized, his responsibilities are to:

— Systematically review government policies and laws on interception of digital communications and collection of personal data.

— Identify actions that intrude on privacy without compelling justification.

— Assist governments in developing best practices to bring global surveillance under the rule of law.

— Further articulate private sector responsibilities to respect human rights.

Help ensure national procedures and laws are consistent with international human rights obligations.

As the first person to be appointed as Privacy Chief, he has to opportunity to set a precedent in elevating privacy to a human right in the modern digital age. He believes his mandate is four-pronged, including “a universal law on surveillance, tackling the business models of the big tech corporations, defining privacy and raising awareness among the public.” Even so, he is less than optimistic when it comes to restoring privacy rights.

I would say it’s impossible to achieve in three years,” he told the Guardian. “And it’s probably impossible to achieve even if the mandate is renewed to six years, if you’re trying to do too much. But I do think that – at least my view of things in a field like human rights – is the longer term view, right? The impact must be felt in the long term.”

He believes the political process will play a role in forcing change. Cannataci called for increased public oversight. “And that is where the political process comes in,” he observed. “Because can you laugh off the economy and the National Health Service? Not in the UK election, if you want to survive.

Governments around the world — not just the United States and Britain — employ violative surveillance policies, including France, Germany, andChina — and Cannataci spoke of the widespread dangers of such tactics.

As Cannataci said, “[Snowden’s revelations] were very important. Snowden will continue to be looked upon as a traitor by some and a hero by others. But in actual fact his revelations confirmed to many of us who have been working in this field for a long time what has been going on, and the extent to which it has gone out of control.

He expressed concern not only regarding governments abusing privacy, but mega-corporations (who share information with state apparatuses) exploiting private user information. He lamented that users sign away their privacy rights with little apprehension.

Further, Cannataci suggested a universal law to limit surveillance and, as the Guardian paraphrased, said “the world needs a Geneva convention style law for the internet to safeguard data and combat the threat of massive clandestine digital surveillance.”

The way we handle it is going to be the difference,” he also noted. “But Orwell foresaw a technology that was controlling. In our case we are looking at a technology that is ever-developing, and ever-developing possibly more sinister capabilities.

Carey Wedler joined Anti-Media as an independent journalist in September of 2014. As a senior editor, her topics of interest include the police and warfare states, the Drug War, the relevance of history to current problems and solutions, and positive developments that drive humanity forward. She currently resides in Los Angeles, California, where she was born and raised. Learn more about Wedler here!

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