Everywhere in the Western world it appears that the right to privacy is under serious assault. It is normal to read about and attend conferences with such threatening monikers as “Big Brother in the 21st Century”. Businesses, financial predators and governments all seem to have an ever-increasing appetite for our personal information and may monitor and collect our online information. One hopes that governments will regulate such activity and respect the hard-won right to privacy, enshrined in the Charter of Rights when enacting legislation, including legislation pertaining to law enforcement.
George Orwell was one of the most exemplary of 20th century writers and we see him returning time and again to questions of fundamental rights and freedoms in both his novels and his often brilliant nonfiction. It is worthwhile remembering some of the crucial lessons contained in 1984 and Animal Farm. These remain every bit as important for our time as when he wrote the novels in the immediate postwar period. There was a reason Orwell chose to set his dystopian masterpiece, 1984, in Britain although he clearly drew major details from the totalitarian society of Communist Russia. The critical significance of this point is underscored by the fact that one of the last public letters he would pen, from a sanitarium while suffering from the tuberculosis that would soon kill him, was a statement designed to clear up misunderstandings that had arisen upon publication of the novel. He was perturbed that the novel was being characterized in the United States as an attack on the British Labour Party and on all things “socialist,’ as somehow tied to the Soviet Union. In his July 1949 statement he reiterated his support for the British Labour Party. He declares:
The scene of the book is laid in Britain in order to emphasize that the English speaking races are not innately better than anyone else and that totalitarianism, if not fought against, could triumph anywhere.1
In considering the challenges that face North Americans today, we can stop short of the word “totalitarianism” but nonetheless register the reality that the concerns the novel raises remain hanging over us like the Sword of Damocles, with increased surveillance potentially impacting many ordinary citizens. For instance, the very real possibility that the federal government would have enacted Bill C-30, the lawful access legislation, this year caused grave fears on the part of many, starting with all of Canada’s privacy commissioners. Ann Cavoukian, Ph.D., Information and Privacy Commissioner, Ontario, warned that the legislation, as drafted, would create a “mandatory surveillance regime.” The federal Privacy Commissioner, Jennifer Stoddart, in a similar vein, declared that the Bill raised serious privacy concerns. She issued a statement with the hard-to-ignore warning that; “since this broad power is not limited to reasonable grounds to suspect criminal activity or to a criminal investigation, it could affect any law-abiding citizen.”2
I myself was brought face to face with the drawbacks of living in a thorough-going surveillance society in that fateful year 1984. I took a camping trip, together with my good friend Boris, through the Soviet Bloc countries to do our own private investigations (while having some fun) of life in a part of the world where fundamental rights were not exactly in robust shape. One day, having toured the Kremlin and listened to a rather humorless guide, lacking all sense of irony, discourse on the centuries of oppression under the Czars, I made my way to Moscow’s Gorky Park. I was approached by a young man named Sasha who introduced himself as a hairdresser with an urgent problem. He desperately hoped I might help. He had met the love of his life, a woman from Minnesota who was studying Russian literature at Moscow University. She had to return to the U.S. and thereafter their messages to one another had mostly been intercepted by the state security agency. Sasha had a hefty letter that he asked me to take out of the country. I thought this might be a little reckless so promised instead that I would send her his message, the essence of which he could communicate to me. I have often thought over the years just what it would be like to live in a society where your most intimate messages would be monitored by an ever-vigilant security service. The potential for committing a “thoughtcrime” in the eyes of your arbitrary watchers just might have a chilling effect on you.