The China Post news staff
“Big Brother is watching you”: The horror of being constantly spied on by the government, as depicted by George Orwell in his famous novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” seems to have become reality in Taiwan.
It is nothing new that a ruler would want to spy on his people. A dictator may be anxious to take total control of the country; a president may want to know what moves his or her political rivals are plotting. Spying may be done in the name of crime prevention; it may be needed to enhance public safety, or against infiltration by foreign enemies or terrorist attacks. We’ve seen many examples of governments spying on their people in history. Queen Elizabeth I is believed to have run an extensive network of spies working for her. Christopher Marlowe, one of the greatest English playwrights of her reign, is said to have been a government spy. Perhaps it is because of England’s strong tradition of the government watching its people that it was the 18th century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham who put forward the concept of the panopticon, a watch tower at the center of a prison where inmates’ cells are arranged in a circle around the tower. The idea is to make it easy for the prison guards to watch the inmates. And the beauty, or horror, of that design is that inmates constantly feel they are being watched — whether there actually are prison guards inside the tower may be irrelevant. Orwell wrote “Nineteen Eighty-Four” in defiance of that panopticon tradition but, ironically, modern-day London has the most public surveillance cameras in the world, watching every corner of the city. It is just a step shy of the panopticonic vision, as citizens are still not watched at home. But do they really have the privacy they think they have? In China, the tradition of the government spying on its people may be as strong as that in England. The most notorious and fearful spying network in Chinese history was run by eunuchs during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The spies helped the emperors control the government officials and the country, and very often, the emperors themselves were controlled by the spies. And it is this piece of history that the opposition camp in Taiwan has been frequently alluding to when criticizing the Ma administration over the ongoing wiretapping row. Spying is of course nothing new in Taiwan. Wiretapping of civilians by the military and law enforcement units — whether legal or illegal — has often been conducted.
Not long ago, when Taiwan was still technically at war with China, its people were constantly reminded of the threat and possibility that communist spies were around them. Such a propaganda move actually turned each and every one of the citizens into a spy for the government as they suspected and monitored one another. Now, like London, many big cities in Taiwan have installed public surveillance cameras supposedly for crime-prevention purposes. And thanks to modern technology, it is very easy for governments to spy on their people. Phone conversations can be easily monitored and recorded. All Internet activities are recorded by service providers. The Edward Snowden controversy has revealed that the U.S. government has been spying on its people over the Internet. Internet firms’ transparency reports have shown that many governments have asked them for user information. Taiwan is among those governments. The requests for information from Internet firms may be legitimate, but it highlights the fact that few can really escape Big Brother. You think your home shields you from the surveillance cameras on the streets, but when you log onto Facebook or any other social media, or surf the Net, you are being watched. Big Brother is really watching, and the panopticon is really working — both enabled by modern technology.