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Snowden's Big Brother isn't as Orwellian as you'd think

Secrets & lies: Spies & GCHQ

Security for virtualized datacentres

Snowden Anniversary Few will forget learning the truth about Santa Claus. Many also felt deep shock on realising that a hitherto ultra-secret NSA/GCHQ programme, revealed in documents leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden, was constantly rating everyone on a naughty-nice metric based on indiscriminate covert surveillance all their online activity – or that GCHQ’s “Cheltenham Doughnut” HQ was shaped like an enormous hard disc for a reason.

A year after the first Snowden revelations – or rather, after a year of Snowden revelations – we know that our surveillance agencies get hold of as much digital material as they can, doing so in some ways that are morally dubious although apparently inside the law… then apparently use only tiny pieces of what they gather.

Take Optic Nerve, the programme through which GCHQ captured and stored still images in bulk from millions of Yahoo! users’ webcam chats, revealed in February. Yahoo! called this “a whole new level of violation of our users’ privacy”.

But it is worth looking at the detail. The leaked page from GCHQ’s internal wiki noted it was trying to use facial recognition to find footage of specific targets, who it thought were using the Yahoo! system; that it stored still images every five minutes, rather than video footage, to comply with human rights legislation; and that it tried to filter out pornographic images, as well as allowing staff who felt uncomfortable about what they might see to opt out of opening Optic Nerve material.

“You are reminded that under GCHQ’s offensive material policy, the dissemination of offensive material is a disciplinary offence,” the page added. This is an organisation talking to itself, in what it thinks is a secret document. Yet it sounds less like an arm of a Shadow Government than a shadowy arm of the civil service.

Snowden documents have revealed some abuse, such as NSA operatives snooping on romantic partners and potential lovers, which the US agency then admitted. "Loveint" abuse is hardly restricted to secret agencies, with 76 London cops being investigated for alleged misuse of the Police National Computer between 2009 and 2013. A document from the NSA argued the case for leaking six radical Muslims’ penchant for online porn and underage girls; it didn’t say whether the agency went through with the plans.

But overall, the Snowden files have been long on capabilities and short on misuse. If you want both, go back 30 years, when a civil servant in London started writing a diary about his hatred of the government. Influenced by a new girlfriend, he got involved in radical politics, pledging to commit acts of terrorism in order to advance the cause. But before he got that far his diary was read, and he was betrayed, imprisoned and tortured.

Winston Smith did not exist. He was told this while in captivity; as part of his punishment he was erased from the official record. But he never existed in the first place, because he was a character in a novel. Nineteen Eighty Four may have been written by a journalist and set in a lightly fictionalised version of 1940s London, but it is fiction. Sixty-five years after its publication in 1949, and 30 years after the time period it was set in, the point still needs to be made that, despite an excrescence of surveillance cameras and the excesses of security services, the London of George Orwell’s masterpiece was not in place by 1984, and it isn’t now.

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