Special investigation - Big Brother is watching all of us

If George Orwell, creator of the Big Brother concept of the state snooping on citizens, were alive today, he would be entitled to say “I told you so”.

The Orwellian prophecy has become a chilling and growing fact of life.

The propensity of governments and criminal elements alike to spy on individuals is increasing at an alarming pace. And as the in-depth Irish Examiner special investigation today and tomorrow demonstrates, the people of Ireland are under greater surveillance and their privacy is being invaded to an unprecedented degree. The investigation shows that growing levels of information on private communications are being accessed by the gardaí, the Defence Forces and the Revenue.

The level of intrusiveness is steadily rising, a trend visible in 2010, for instance, when an average of 41 landline, mobile phone, or internet records were accessed by authorities every day. While this represented an increase of 10-a-day on the previous year, a rate which, on the face of it, may not seem excessive, the number of requests submitted to telecommunication companies in 2010 for data about private citizens was just short of 15,000. It marked a 32% jump in state-authorised spying of electronic communications.

Considering the surge in new technology and the rising tide of emails, calls, texts and web data, the level of surveillance has undoubtedly risen dramatically since then. These figures were released by the Department of Justice ahead of the publication of European-wide figures under the data retention directive.

Most data sought by the authorities related to recent contacts and nearly 11,000 were less than three months old. Significantly, the covert surveillance activities of state bodies included bugs and tracking devices to monitor criminal gangs and international smugglers.

The authorities here are closely following developments in Britain where the coalition government is preparing to extend the powers of the security services to monitor emails, calls, texts and website searches. Despite protests from civil liberty groups, British prime minister David Cameron has justified this policy, citing the threat of terrorism and the risk to children using the internet.

No doubt, similar reasons for extending surveillance could be quoted by our Government since Irish children are equally vulnerable to perverts and the risk inherent in accessing pornographic material online. With the resurgence of dissident republicanism in the North, the authorities there intend giving intelligence services access to emails and other communications. Designed to counteract paedophiles and terrorists, the move has been described as a “snoopers’ charter”.

Worryingly, the increasing invasion of personal privacy by agencies in the Republic is allied with a “nanny state” mindset in the current administration towards aspects of everyday life. Ominously, as Orwell predicted, the relationship between the individual and the state is changing with the result that individual liberty is inevitably being eroded.

Soon nothing will be sacrosanct. Even the most law-abiding citizens will have reason to fear that Big Brother is reading their texts, eavesdropping on their mobile phone conversations, and silently looking back at them from the computer screen.

Read more in this special investigation here.


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