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Zaleski: This stuff would stun George Orwell

I’m not one to fall into an Orwellian funk about Big Brother government, but spectacular advances in technology ought to concern anyone who values privacy.

Whether it’s the NSA global spying scandal or the likelihood of unmanned drones patrolling the skies over your idyllic middle-class neighborhood, it’s all getting a little scary. Whether it’s an array of police cameras in downtown Fargo, or private sector monitoring/collecting of your buying habits, or recording sound and picture of folks walking through a mall, or the fact that anyone with a cellphone can be tracked and identified — the technologies deployed already are far beyond the frightening screens in George Orwell’s “1984.”

Hold on, you say. The book “1984” was about a totalitarian nation that was manipulating information, dividing the people with fear and creating false enemies to keep the population in line. Orwell’s sheep sacrificed privacy and freedom in order to feel safe. None of that is happening today, right?

It’s a creeping phenomenon; a change so stealthy we don’t notice it. It’s the small things, such as police cameras, allegedly placed to deter crime. It’s a new application for aerial drones, such as corralling a fleeing criminal, so we can all feel safe. It’s flying a drone with high-resolution optics to rescue someone caught in a flood, or to monitor crop progress in vast agricultural fields, or to do a wildlife census — all uses that are innovative, less expensive than other means, and generally benign.

But as history teaches, new technology, however benign initially, will be misused for sinister purposes. Spying/drone advances already have outrun laws and regulations. Proponents of drones, including researchers in North Dakota, have lobbied successfully against effective regulations, mouthing promises that the machines will not be misused. We hear similar platitudes from law enforcement and other government sectors, but as yet not much is stopping officialdom from flying a drone into any private space, even if only a squishy case can be made that the incursion is a necessary function of law enforcement or emergency services.

The record shows that if they have it, they will use it, justified or not. They have heavily armed SWAT teams in low-crime towns. What the hell for? They have armored vehicles for police work. What the hell for? “Protect and serve” is a far different ethic, a far different motivator, than a “war on crime.” And now police drones to do what? Check every fenced backyard for the possibility of criminal activity? Run down a pathetic small-time loser in a corn field? Do unrestricted nighttime sweeps of home gardens to see if anyone is growing marijuana?

The potential for misuse of spying technology, which will carry with it the erosion of basic privacy expectations, cannot be minimized. Adequate controls are not enough. They should be iron-clad. But they won’t be because we all want to be “safe.” The question: How much personal privacy, how much home inviolability, will we blithely give up for what, in effect, can only be a false sense of safety?

Zaleski is the opinion editor of The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, which is a part of Forum News Service. Email him at