Politics & Media
Apr 29, 2013, 05:12AM

Government as Peeping Tom

Spying on your own citizens.

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Susan Gittins

The invisible line between individual privacy and public safety is about to narrow again as a result of the carnage in Boston and the proposed immigration law. Freedom to move about will not be restricted or in any way limited but ubiquitous eyes and ears will know every corner you turn, every word you utter and every electronic transmission you send and receive. Government is joining business as a peeping-Tom partner.

Forget about speed cameras, satellites and police helicopters chattering overhead. They’re the low-tech playthings of the past. By 2020, security experts say, there will be 10,000 drones in the skies over America and along the borders to the north and south. Right now there are 6000 security cameras in New York City, 600 in Baltimore and 600 in Boston. Those numbers are almost negligible compared to the 4.2 million closed circuit TV cameras in Great Britain, one of the world’s most civilized, crime-free nations, one for every 14 people, according to British press reports.

Smile, you’re on candid camera, is no longer a cautionary tease. Right now average Americans are photographed about 400 times a day nearly everywhere they go without even knowing it. This is especially true when entering a bank or a supermarket or convenience store, a mall or department store, when gassing up or even entering a gated community or a parking garage or, still more common, when just walking down a street or strolling through a park. Google Street and Bing can even poke into living rooms and thermal imaging cameras can penetrate barriers to detect objects and people, anywhere, anytime. Private lives are now public property.

If all of this eerily recalls the prophetic fears of George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, set aside that naïve consideration. Prescient though they might have been, in the early-to-mid 20th century when they were writing they never could have imagined such a plugged-in, camera-ready world.

In those days, television was still a test pattern, radio was an old Philco with a short-wave band and cameras were most likely a Kodak box. And it’s an ironic twist of the screw that a security camera is mounted just outside Orwell’s fourth floor flat, 27B, overlooking Canonbury Square, in Islington, North London, according to the London Evening Standard.

Everyone with a cell phone is a photographer and everyone with a computer is a reporter. To help solve the bombing in Boston, law enforcement officials engaged in a massive electronic dragnet, sifting through millions of cell phone and video images that had been voluntarily supplied by spectators as well as mounted camera monitors. But the most telling evidence was an eyewitness description by a spectator, Jeff Bauman, who lost both legs in the first blast—a detailed visual image which supported the photos of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, casually strolling away from the mayhem on Boylston St. that he helped create.

Anyone who has a driver’s license or a passport photo is a candidate for an electronic line-up. Such is the massive visual data base that the government has assembled on computers. And such is the advanced analytical facial technology that has been developed during and since the war in Iraq by the government in partnership with private industry. It is the storage of such information by the government that troubles privacy rights advocates.

Social media such as Facebook and Twitter, night-vision goggles that turn midnight into daylight in the eyes of the beholder, digital imagery and infra-red cameras all contribute to facilitate detection and peel away privacy. In our open society, feel free to move about the country but be aware that you’re being watched while you do it.

Remote-controlled drones have now assumed the properties of God. They’re everywhere and can see everything. Even a libertarian such as Rand Paul (R-KY) has now become an advocate for the omniscient drones patrolling our borders after spending a 13-hour filibuster denouncing the eye-in-the-sky planes for the accidental killing of a youth in Afghanistan. And Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), a liberal and a rights advocate, agrees with the need for drones to protect our borders.

Spying is nothing new. Spying on one’s own citizens is. Nations spy on each other. Politicians engage in opposition research. And businesses have long engaged in corporate espionage. During World War II, immigrants who were not citizens were forced to relinquish short-wave radios to the government. During the tumultuous 1960s and 70s, police undercover units regularly spied on and infiltrated militant groups and anti-war demonstrations. The entire government complex around the Maryland State House in Annapolis is wired with a sophisticated camera-recording system that has been used to monitor demonstrations (and demonstrators.)

The most famous bungled attempt at political espionage was Watergate in which five hapless burglars in the employ of President Richard M. Nixon’s reelection campaign attempted to bug a telephone in the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate Hotel. The caper, as every political hobbyist knows, eventually forced Nixon to resign from office.

But it was President George W. Bush, following the 9/11 devastation in New York, who ordered the wholesale warrantless electronic eavesdropping and visual monitoring of Americans that was the beginning of the world of perpetual exposure that we live in today.

Bush followed that order with the Patriot Act which, for the first time, reversed roles for the FBI and the CIA and allowed warrantless searches in addition to warrentless wiretapping. The Patriot Act gave the FBI the authority to operate abroad and the CIA the power to practice its dark arts at home. It further erased the traditional separation of investigators and prosecutors by allowing them to blur functions in the name of national security. The Patriot Act was extended under President Obama. Because of advances in technology and weaponry, the oceans are no longer broad enough to protect the nation from enemy attacks. America will always be at war, at least electronically. And business will be at government’s side with the latest electronic gadgets.

The surveillance-industrial complex is a thriving business. Its applications are no longer purely for the military. They are partners with the federal government as well as local governments not only as instruments of public safety but also as revenue sources. They now peer into every aspect of Americans’ lives.

Too often civil libertarians and privacy rights activists are quick to blame government for such intrusions. Yet no one points an accusatory finger at the developers and purveyors of such invasive technology and the lobbyists and sales representatives who spend millions to peddle their meddling wares to Congress and to government procurement agencies. Often the agencies the manufacturers are hustling become advocates for the products they’re buying.

A good example is the speed camera fiasco in Baltimore; technology gone amok. They don’t work. More often than not they’re wrong. The city has been forced to refund or cancel hundreds of thousands in fines. Another good example is the number of full page ads in The Washington Post in which manufacturers advocate a virtual arsenal of military and security hardware while proudly declaiming their patriotism. The ads are designed to sway members of Congress to subscribe to their hardware with campaign contributions soon to follow.

We live in a nation where the Constitution says We the people, not We the snoops, not We the drones, not We the security cameras. Yet faced with internal threats to peace and national security, the only alternative may be the vast glass house that 310 million Americans now live in. What are citizens to do except watch what they say, be careful where they go and with whom they associate and keep the cell phone quiet. That’s the high price of freedom these days.


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