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According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, surveillance is "the act of carefully watching someone or something in order to prevent or detect a crime". Examples given are: "government surveillance of suspected terrorists" and "the bank robbery was recorded by surveillance video cameras".



Before you start reading it is a good idea to be familiar with these words:


transparency, surveillance, monitoring, data privacy, dystopian, alienation, totalitarian, censorship, dissenters, whistle-blower, hacking, artificial intelligence, interception, supervision, CCTV camera

  • What do you associate with these words?
  • What kind of connotations do they carry?
  • Make sentences which illustrate the meaning of each word. You may use more than one of the words per sentence.

Big Brother Is Watching You

The purpose of watching and recording the behaviour or activities of people, might be to protect, influence and manage vital interests. Surveillance may include methods where technology does not play an important role such as using human agents. Electronic equipment, however, is often employed to observe suspects. It might involve CCTV cameras and interception of internet use and telephone calls.

It goes beyond saying that surveillance is a useful tool for governments to preserve social control of their subjects. In his science fiction novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell describes such a society and names the leader of the ruling party Big Brother. What if Big Brother - represented by the regime - is totalitarian and non-democratic and uses the technology to brainwash its citizens?

Nineteen Eighty-Four

Nineteen Eighty-Four is a dystopian science fiction story about such a nightmare society.The novel depicts a state controlled by rulers who abuse the available technology to repress the population. George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948) scared the wits out of contemporary readers in the 20th century. The only comfort was that a Big Brother society ruling out all individual thinking and the subsequent alienation experienced by the protagonists in the novel, seemed unlikely to happen in the near future.

The question is now, however, after turning the millennium:

  • How much do we recognize from the dystopian society depicted in the novel?
  • Do we recognize a Big Brother? If so, who?
  • Does all the technology rule out our individual freedom?
  • Are we in charge of our own lives?

Read one paragraph from the opening of George Orwell's novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four.


Front Cover of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four (1949)

Outside, even through the shut window pane, the world looked cold. Down in the street little eddies of wind were whirling dust and torn paper into spirals, and though the sun was shining and the sky a harsh blue, there seemed to be no color in anything except the posters that were plastered everywhere. The black-mustachio'd face gazed down from every commanding corner. There was one on the house front immediately opposite. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption said, while the dark eyes looked deep into Winston's own. Down at street level another poster, torn at one corner, flapped fitfully in the wind, alternately covering and uncovering the single word INGSOC. In the far distance a helicopter skimmed down between the roofs, overhead for an instant like a blue-bottle, and darted away again with a curving flight. It was the Police Patrol, snooping into people's windows. The patrols did not matter, however. Only the Thought Police mattered.

(George Orwell, 1984, Ch. 1)

  • Describe the mood.
  • How does the author create the mood?
  • Why do you think this was scary reading in the decades after World War II?
  • Is it still scary?
  • Do we have a Thought Police? If so, who are the Thought Police?

Mass Surveillance

The need to protect what is considered as citizens' rights is as old as human civilization. Modern electronic devices have opened up new possibilities when it comes to surveillance of populations.

According to the British magazine CCTV Image, it is estimated that the number of cameras in the UK is 1.85 million.The magazine bases this estimate on a survey of private and public cameras carried out in 2011. This number implies that the average person in the UK would be watched by 70 CCTV cameras every day.

If we also take into consideration all the digital footprints we leave behind, the balance between citizens' rights and national security is very delicate.

The Cold War and the Red Scare

After World War II, the period that is known as the Cold War evolved. The USA's former enemies - the Germans and the Japanese - were replaced by the communist Soviet Union. The Soviets possessed the nuclear bomb and quickly expanded communism to other continents. Left-wing parties in the USA became primary suspects. The FBI tracked them down, while the Truman Doctrine of 1947 inspired, and even financed, foreign governments to fight communism within their own countries. In 1952, President Truman established the top secret National Security Agency (NSA) whose primary function was analysis of communications intelligence information and protection of the U.S. national security systems. One year later, senator Joseph McCarthy became chairman of the Senate Committee on Government Operations, and the crusade against communism accelerated. The suspicion - often referred to as the Red Scare - of leftist sympathizers was persisent well into the 1970s, with FBI surveillance of Civil Rights workers and anti-Vietnam protestors.

Surveillance After 9/11

Before the terrorist attacks in September 2001 most Americans thought that terrorism and suicide bombing was something that occured other places in the world. Not since Pearl Harbor in 1941, had the USA experienced a foreign attack on their country. In the wake of 9/11, President Bush signed the first Patriot Act. The Act adds a new layer of security to prevent terrorism by easing surveillance regulations. President Barack Obama extended parts of the Patriot Act for four more years in 2011.

The surveillance measures imposed by the Patriot Act involve:

  • Telephone Wire Tapping
  • Internet Activity Tracking
  • Email tracking
  • Increased Airport Security
  • Security Cameras
  • Surveillance Credit Card and Banking History Access

The Patriot Act has been highly controversial in the USA. Many Americans welcome strict protection from terrorists while others abhor the limitation of civil liberties.

In 2005, there were sensational headlines in The New York Times about federal surveillance of thousands of Americans.The newspaper found conclusive evidence of wiretapping of internet and phone traffic since 2002.

In 2010, WikiLeaks started publishing classified military documents, many of which were related to the warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq. Their primary source turned out to be Private Bradley Manning. In 2013, he was sentenced to 35 years in prison for violation of the Espionage Act.

In May 2013, Edward Joseph Snowden, an infrastructure analyst working for NSA (see above), revealed details about a massive internet and phone surveillance programme initiated by American and British governments. Most notably, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a supposed friend, not an enemy of the USA, was among the persons who had been subjected to phone tapping. Snowden's leak of classified information made him one of the most wanted men in the world. He currently lives in refuge in Russia, and Putin, the Russian president, has characterized him as a champion for human rights. Snowden, the whistle-blower is one of the causes of US - Russia relations, that had improved since the Cold War, being strained at the moment.

Suggested Reading: Science Fiction Novels

George Orwell's novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), depicts an all-powerful society named Oceania where political dissent, sex and any form of indviduality are illegal. Violation of the rules are severly punished. Big Brother is the leader of the government and he keeps an eye on his people in Oceania. Read Excerpt from 1984 by George Orwell.

Margaret Atwood's novel, The Handmaid's Tale (1985), deals with a totalitarian society, the Republic of Gilead (formerly the United States of America), which was founded in response to social threats like increasing pollution and rising infertility rates. In Gilead, state and religion are one, and women are severely oppressed, having lost most of their rights – they are not allowed to work, vote, or even read or write. Even their fertility is regulated by the state. Read an excerpt The Handmaid's Tale.

In Aldous Huxley's novel Brave New World (1932) we meet yet another totalitarian state which executes strict control of its subjects to maintain power. Whereas the government in Orwell's novel uses torture, surveillance and the Thought Police, the power in Brave New World is preserved by technological interventions that spoil the citizens to such an extent that they feel so happy and superficial that they become stripped of their moral standards. Read the novel here.

All the novels are adapted into movies.


  • In what ways have the events of 9/11 led to restrictions on individual freedom?
  • What are the pros et cons regarding surveillance?
  • How can we combine the need for security with individual freedom?

Read More

Edward Snowden - Hero Or Traitor?

Sist faglig oppdatert 13.11.2018
Skrevet av Eli M. Huseby


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