In 1949, acclaimed British novelist, George Orwell published “Nineteen Eighty-Four” (often titled 1984), which is a dystopian novel set in a futuristic version of the same year as expressed in the title . Orwell’s fictitious world was murky, claustrophobic, and threatening as it portrayed a society ruled by an omnipotent, totalitarian party under a mysterious entity named Big Brother.
In the book, Big Brother was the personification of a government that scrutinized and supervised every action of its citizens; and even the most private aspects of their lives. The government tried to control not only the lives and actions of its people but also the process of their thoughts.
Any form of unconventional beliefs and ideas that did not agree with the state was deemed a danger and the offenders were swiftly dealt with. So poignant was Orwell’s depiction of a strict authoritarian government that it left readers and political theorists with a lot to think about the future of man and society.
1984 was universally acclaimed by critics during a time of its publication. Today the book is considered a classic and the term ‘Big Brother’ is synonymous with concepts such as the abuse of government power, widespread mass surveillance, and rigid totalitarian control.
The novel itself was a work of fiction based on a vulnerable society, and though we are now long past 1984 in real-world time; Orwell’s warning about the totalitarian abuse of power still continues to be relevant to us after more than half a century since its publication.
In July 2015, a UK-based human rights organization named Privacy International published an extensive report highlighting the state of surveillance systems employed by Pakistan’s armed forced and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
The facts of the report (titled, Tipping the scales: Security & surveillance in Pakistan) were independently confirmed by the organization and provided a discomforting analysis of how efficient the surveillance systems have become in their functionality and are enforced. It is reported that Pakistan’s surveillance networks have become so advanced that they are now capable of rivaling even the most proficient systems in the world.
Pakistan has been immersed in a conflict against militant extremism for more than a decade now. It plays a vital role in the conflict and is in coordination with the Central intelligence Agency. As a result, international intelligence agencies have encouraged the Armed Forces of Pakistan to take necessary actions to supervise all means of communication in order to eradicate any threats. This includes the supervision of information on IP traffic that is passed both domestically and internationally, biometric registration of SIM cards, and other forms of data verification. Pakistan has frequently participated in many international intelligence operations set up by the US National Security Agency. This collocation with the NSA has helped inflate the Armed Forces’ budget with all the funding provided as a result.
It has been reported that since the year 2005, the surveillance capabilities of Pakistan has bloated beyond what is legally acquiescent. This involves the tapping of phones, operating spy software, and keeping a close check on internet traffic.
But the most interesting fact in the report states that ISI is finding means to develop a system that can directly access undersea optic cables and, as a result, be able to intercept all internet traffic and passing information. If the ISI are successful in tapping into optic cables, they will have access to an extremely large amount of private data. The report states that the system will be able to access 660 gigabytes per second and would provide “a significant expansion of Pakistan’s communications intelligence gathering capacities”. A system as powerful as this would make virtually all of the nation’s domestic and international communication data culpable to close scrutiny.
According to the report, confirmed by US-based news site VICE :
Privacy International obtained documents that show Pakistan bought surveillance technology from foreign companies such as Ericsson (Sweden), Alcatel (France), Huawei (China), SS8 (US), and Utimac (Germany). It also obtained documents showing that Germany had authorized four million euros’ ($4.3 million) worth of software licenses for “monitoring technology and spyware software.
Pakistan has a vast database of personal information collected via biometric system for ID cards which it can also share with the NSA. If the government is successful in pairing this database with higher-level, sophisticated method of electric monitoring, their surveillance systems will be capable of rivaling even the most advanced US and European ones.
It is highly probable that Pakistan’s intelligence agency have used these data intercepting methods in helping the government target social activists, journalists, and lawyers. This is a country where unconventional ideas are grinded down and perpetrators are left facing punishment, usually waiting for years before trials commence. And such strict surveillance methods would leave no breathing space at all for one to express ideas freely without the risk of prosecution. As a result, one would be at peril of committing “thought crime”, and facing a long and arduous process of imprisonment as a result.
The exposure of so much private data being in the hands of the state leaves a lot to think about. Though it is agreed that such strict measures do guarantee the security of the country’s affairs and places it in a much better strategic position to combat terrorism; but it also leaves the private lives of its citizens wide-open to close scrutiny. In such a system, personal individuality becomes susceptible to being perceived as treason, and the state risks turning into an authority not unlike the one depicted in Orwell’s dystopian magnum opus. In the end, we run risk of inhabiting the same frightening world the author had warned us from living in.