“Big Brother is Watching You”. Beyond Orwell’s Worst Nightmare
By Marjorie Cohn
February 01, 2014
“Big Brother is Watching You,” George Orwell wrote in his disturbing book 1984. But, as Mikko Hypponen points out, Orwell “was an optimist.” Orwell never could have imagined that the National Security Agency (NSA) would amass metadata on billions of our phone calls and 200 million of our text messages every day. Orwell could not have foreseen that our government would read the content of our emails, file transfers, and live chats from the social media we use.
In his recent speech on NSA reforms, President Obama cited as precedent Paul Revere and the Sons of Liberty, who patrolled the streets at night, “reporting back any signs that the British were preparing raids against America’s early Patriots.” This was a weak effort to find historical support for the NSA spying program. After all, Paul Revere and his associates were patrolling the streets, not sorting through people’s private communications.
To get a more accurate historical perspective, Obama should have considered how our founding fathers reacted to searches conducted by the British before the revolution. The British used “general warrants,” which authorized blanket searches without any individualized suspicion or specificity of what the colonial authorities were seeking.
At the American Continental Congress in 1774, in a petition to King George III, Congress protested against the colonial officers’ unlimited power of search and seizure. The petition charged that power had been used “to break open and enter houses, without the authority of any civil magistrate founded on legal information.”
When the founders later put the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures into the Bill of Rights, they were attempting to ensure that our country would not become a police state.