Although published in 1949 and well before the birth of the internet, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, with its references to hidden cameras and microphones monitoring the inhabitants of the fictional state of Oceania, may be seen by some as less a work of fiction and more a chilling prediction of modern reality.
Indeed, the United Nations privacy chief has recently described the situation in Britain as worse than Orwell could ever have predicted. In particular when looking at the number of CCTV cameras in Britain; a country often cited as having the most CCTV cameras per citizen.
CCTV is the obvious choice to track a person, but it may be just as easy to locate a person by tracking their digital footprint rather than their physical footsteps. We now live in a world where some happily air their dirty linen to the masses through technology which does not forget easily. When posting, tweeting or sharing on social media, it is easy to forget that you are inevitably trading in your privacy and adding to an accessible, and indelible, online jigsaw of details about your personal life. It is almost impossible to remain anonymous across the internet, and those photos, tweets and posts are never truly ‘private’ or instantaneously deleted.
The new Channel 4 television programme ‘Hunted’ airs this week, and questions whether it is possible for ordinary members of the public to go ‘off grid’ and escape the tracks of their digital footprint.
The notions of privacy and liberty rub together painfully; under Article 8 of the ECHR every citizen has the right to a private and family life, but this is qualified by a right for a public authority to interfere to keep the public safe. In the wake of the Edward Snowden disclosures, the former deputy Prime Minister commissioned a report to review the legality of UK surveillance programmes. The report, ‘A Democratic Licence to Operate’, was published this summer. To summarise the key points, it recommended a new legislative framework for surveillance powers and continued capability to collect and analyse intercepted material in bulk.
Bulk collection of data was a key disclosure made by Snowden. It is a topic that has hit the press again as US Congress recently passed legislation to end the bulk collection of Americans’ phone records. The report here recommended a curtailment on bulk data collection by the British government by suggesting any warrants for bulk interception should be the subject of judicial authorisation (save for an urgent requirement).
In the Orwellian novel there is no such thing as the internet; the protagonist of the novel (Winston) is able to meet his lover (Julia) in the country without detection. If Winston lived in Britain today it is difficult to imagine that he would have been able to keep his affair secret for so long. Notwithstanding that, Winston could be snapped on CCTV tens of times a day, perhaps he would have sent a selfie to Julia on Snapchat, poked her on Facebook or sent a picture to her of their secret location via Instagram, in the belief that no-one could trace his ‘private’ actions online.
Perhaps Channel 4’s programme will reveal whether a feat like Winston’s could be possible in today’s online society.
Natasza Slater is a solicitor and Elizabeth Morley a senior associate at Howard Kennedy.