When people think of surveillance, they frequently think of George Orwell, the English writer whose depictions of surveillance in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four continue to resonate and inform our cultural and legal understandings of privacy. Orwell’s critics (and even some of his friends) thought he was a bit paranoid, but recent documents released by the British government suggest he had a point. The documents show that Orwell was himself monitored by the British government’s Special Branch police for over a decade because he was suspected of being a communist. A particularly amusing note in one of the documents explained that, referring to Orwell, “This man has advanced communist views … He dresses in a bohemian fashion both at his office and in his leisure hours.” The documents also reveal that Orwell apparently had tattoos on some of his knuckles, which he apparently picked up as a young man living in India.
Orwell was being watched because he was feared to be a communist, a charge that we know (and the government finally figured out after watching him for a decade) to be nonsense. But watching people because they were communists was considered perfectly acceptable in the context of the communist era. One wonders what (and who) is in the surveillance files currently being created by Western governments as part of the war on terrorism. Unfortunately, absent a leak or the extended passage of time, we may never know.