Last week I went to see the production of George Orwell’s book 1984 currently showing at the Playhouse Theatre in London.
Winston Smith is the main character in the book and play. He lives in Airstrip One, formerly known as London, within Oceania one of the three Superstates which divided the world after the global war. The UK having fell into civil war after the war has been absorbed into Oceania, whereas continental Europe has been conquered by the USSR and the third Superstate is Eastasia, made of Eastern and South Eastern Asia. The three Superstates are continuously at war fighting over the remaining free land.
Oceania is run by 2% of the population, the Inner Party and is led by ‘Big Brother’. Individuality and independent thought are forbidden and everyone is encouraged to report suspicious behavior to the ‘Thought Police’ who then bring such miscreants back in line through torture or kill them.
Winston is a member of the middle class called the Outer Party which makes up 13% of the population. He works for the Ministry of Truth or ‘Minitrue’ as an editor, responsible for historical revisionism; he rewrites records and alters photographs to conform to the state’s ever-changing version of history, rendering the deleted people ‘unpersons’.
In every building there are television screens, accompanied by secret microphones and cameras. Most people with whom Winston interacts are like robots repeating the same phrases and actions, apart from Julia, who he discovers hates the lack of privacy and diminished individuality imposed by Big Brother, as does he.
1984 is a powerful play, because it touches on our perceived right to privacy – which most of us expect from a democratic society. But are or we deluding ourselves? Are we already living in an Orwell society, the only difference being that our ‘Big Brother’ is benign, at least until 2017.
We cannot go to a doctor without them recording our medical history, to keeping us healthy, and we happily disclose personal information to our professional advisors forgetting most of the time that if they suspect us of suspicious transactions they are obliged to report us to the financial crime enforcement unit in that country.
Our ‘Big Brother’ is benign – but is it due to turn beastly in 2017? This is the date when the Fourth Anti Money Laundering Directive for OECD countries comes into effect, when every financial institution must record every payment of EU10,000 and the beneficial owner of every company and account to the local authority. This is designed to flush out suspicious activities and clamp down on the proceeds of crime finding their way into everyday life as well as tax evasion. Reports considered significant will be followed by an investigation, fines and criminal sanctions.
In 2017 we will also see the implementation of the Common Reporting Standard where financial institutions are obliged to collate and report on all accounts of foreign owned individuals to their government which will then be exchanged automatically with that individual’s home country.
Of course it is right and proper that evaders of tax are brought to account, but not all wealthy people with businesses and accounts offshore are tax evaders; and most will not welcome an increased chance of an investigation due to some misleading or inaccurate information or worse – an increased threat to their personal safety and the safety of their family.
Julien E Cohen says ‘Conditions of diminished privacy impair the capacity to innovate’. I am not sure I agree with this. Winston in 1984 did not stop wanting to write his diary or to be intimate with Julia he simply used his powers of innovation to preserve his privacy, (or so he was trapped into believing). In the same way innovative entrepreneurs who value privacy will find ways to preserve and protect their financial information – hence the growing interest in ‘privacy planning’.
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