WikiLeaks CIA docs show it's not 2017, it's 1984. Now what?

Commentary: Even though I'm no terrorist, the unconfirmed WikiLeaks disclosures about the CIA scare me. They might scare you too. Here's what to do.

Ian Sherr Contributor and Former Editor at Large / News
Ian Sherr (he/him/his) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, so he's always had a connection to the tech world. As an editor at large at CNET, he wrote about Apple, Microsoft, VR, video games and internet troubles. Aside from writing, he tinkers with tech at home, is a longtime fencer -- the kind with swords -- and began woodworking during the pandemic.
Ian Sherr
3 min read

"Big Brother is watching you."
--George Orwell, "1984"

James Martin/CNET

This past week, we learned what's in the new health care law being crafted by Congress, we found out IBM can cram a lot of data onto a single atom, and... what else?

Oh yeah, your TV could be spying on you.

And so could your phone, your tablet and your friggin' car.

It all came from more than 8,000 top secret documents reportedly from the Central Intelligence Agency and released by WikiLeaks on Tuesday. Aside from scaring the bejesus out of us, it also brought new life into our collective gallows humor and tendency to quote from George Orwell's dystopian classic, "1984."

That's the novel where people are constantly spied on by Big Brother, the omnipresent all-seeing government. One of the most potent tools in its arsenal was a "telescreen," or a television that can spy on you.

So, yeah, welcome to the future.

It turns out the fantastical tech we've brought into our lives, from phones that sit on our nightstands to tablets that entertain our kids, also have cameras and microphones that can be used to spy on us.

What's even more sigh-inducing than all these new revelations -- which are being compared to 2013's shocking Edward Snowden leaks involving the National Security Agency's mass surveillance programs -- is how shoulder-shrug-emoji everyone is about it.

The truth is that even though CNET and CBS haven't so far confirmed the authenticity of the WikiLeaks documents, and the CIA isn't supposed to spy on us domestically, these disclosures are a kind of confirmation of things hackers have been telling us for years.

"We know we have a spy agency," said Dan Petro, an associate at security research firm Biship Fox.

Even the CIA basically said, "Yeah, so what?"

"It is the CIA's job to be innovative, cutting edge, and the first line of defense in protecting this country from enemies abroad," Jonathan Liu, a CIA spokesman, said in an emailed statement. "America deserves nothing less."

A decade ago, talk of this type of spying was relegated to conspiracy theorists and the "tinfoil hat" crowd. (Here's a handy video showing how to make one, if you'd like.) Now it's just part of everyday life.

And just like the people in "1984," it turns out there isn't much we can do about all this, aside from convincing government to change.

Though Microsoft, Google and Apple say making sure your software is up to date should keep you safe, it's hard not to feel like maybe the only true answer would be to just ditch our tech once and for all.

OK, I know: A tech news and reviews site telling you to ditch tech is pretty ironic. But these are the times we live in. Big Brother is watching. No amount of how-to-ing is going to solve this one.

So what now?

The one answer we know will work is to go low tech, and get your devices off the internet.

The LG TV I bought in 2010 that doesn't have any apps or a connection to the internet? I'm holding onto it for longer than I expected now.

If you're worried about your exotic Netflix, HBO Go and Hulu movie watching habits getting into the wrong hands, there's always VHS. And thanks to the Video Privacy Protection Act, if you can find a video store still renting tapes, you'll be (mostly) safe.

But move quick, because the last VCR maker stopped production last year.

Oh, and you can always ditch that Amazon Kindle and Apple iPad , too. It turns out "1984" is still in print, on dead-tree paper and everything. You can even buy it with cash from your local bookstore so there won't be a record in your credit card statement.

In Orwell's novel, the protagonists, Winston and Julia, rent a room without a telescreen to conduct their affair. But they get caught by the Thought Police anyway because their landlord, in a twist, turns out to be an agent in a sting operation to catch thought criminals.

Sadly, there's not much lower-tech you can go with people. Maybe move to a desert island?

CNET's Laura Hautala and Alfred Ng contributed to this report.

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