“Big Brother is watching you.”
You’ve heard the saying before, but a new report by the American Civil Liberties Union warns you’re about to be watched by Big Brother like never before.
The report, Bigger Monster, Weaker Chains: The Growth of an American Surveillance Society, claims the U.S. has now reached the point where a total surveillance society has not only become a realistic possibility, but a likelihood unless the public fights back.
“From government watch lists to secret wiretaps, Americans are unknowingly becoming targets of government surveillance,” said Dorothy Ehrlich, executive director of the ACLU of Northern California. “It is dangerous for a democracy that government power goes unchecked and for this reason it is imperative that our government be made accountable.”
The report cites two developments making the march toward an Orwellian society a quick journey:
- The tremendous explosion in surveillance-enabling technologies, including databases, computers, cameras, sensors, wireless networks, implantable microchips, GPS, and biometrics;
- and the weakening of civil-liberty protections, as government and private surveillance increases and a giant infrastructure tying the technologies together is contemplated.
“Many people still do not grasp that Big Brother surveillance is no longer the stuff of books and movies,” said Barry Steinhardt, co-author of the ACLU report. “Given the capabilities of today’s technology, the only thing protecting us from a full-fledged surveillance society are the legal and political institutions we have inherited as Americans. Unfortunately, the Sept. 11 attacks have led some to embrace the fallacy that weakening the Constitution will strengthen America.”
A recent illustration of the danger, according to the report, is the Pentagon’s Total Information Awareness (TIA) program, which seeks to sift through a vast array of databases full of personal information in the hunt for terrorism.
“Even if TIA never materializes in its current form,” Steinhardt said, “what this report shows is that the underlying trends are much bigger than any one program or any one controversial figure like John Poindexter.”
An overview of the ACLU report provides information on a wide variety of surveillance issues, some of which is excerpted here:
- Video surveillance
- The commodification of information: Today, any consumer activity that is not being tracked and recorded is increasingly being viewed by businesses as money left on the table.
- Internet privacy: On the Internet, our activities can be recorded down to the last mouse click.
- Financial privacy: The once-firm tradition of privacy and discretion by financial institutions has collapsed, and financial companies today routinely put the details of their customers’ financial lives up for sale.
- New data-gathering technologies: In the near future, new technologies will continue to fill out the mosaic of information it is possible to collect on every individual; examples include cellphone location data, biometrics, computer “black boxes” in cars that “tattle” on their owners, and location-tracking computer chips.
- Medical and genetic privacy: Medical privacy has collapsed, and genetic information is about to become a central part of health care. Unlike other medical information, genetic data is a unique combination: both difficult to keep confidential and extremely revealing about us.
The biggest threat to privacy comes from the government. Many Americans are naturally concerned about corporate surveillance, but only the government has the power to take away liberty.
- Government databases: The government’s access to personal information begins with the thousands of databases it maintains on the lives of Americans and others.
- Communications surveillance: The government performs an increasing amount of eavesdropping on electronic communications. Examples of the new type of surveillance include the FBI’s controversial “Carnivore” program and the international eavesdropping program code-named Echelon.
- The “Patriot” Act: Just six weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, a panicked Congress passed the USA Patriot Act, an overnight revision of the nation’s surveillance laws that vastly expanded the government’s authority to spy on its own citizens and reduced checks and balances on those powers such as judicial oversight.
- Loosened domestic spying regulations: In May 2002, Attorney General John Ashcroft issued new guidelines that significantly increase the freedom of federal agents to conduct surveillance on American individuals and organizations.
The synergies of surveillance
Multiple surveillance techniques added together are greater than the sum of their parts. The growing piles of data being collected on Americans represent an enormous invasion of privacy, but our privacy has actually been protected by the fact that all this information still remains scattered across many different databases. The real threat to privacy will come when the government, landlords, employers, or other powerful forces gain the ability to draw together all this information. Several programs now being discussed or implemented would advance this goal.
- “Total Information Awareness”: This Pentagon program aims at giving officials easy, one-stop access to every possible government and commercial database in the world.
- CAPS II: A close cousin of TIA is also being created in the context of airline security: Computer Assisted Passenger Screening, or CAPS, which involves collecting a variety of personal information on airline travelers in order to flag those deemed suspicious for special screening.
- National ID cards: Combining new technologies such as biometrics with an enormously powerful database, national ID cards would become an overarching means of facilitating the tracking and surveillance of Americans.
Surveillance video cameras are rapidly spreading throughout the public arena, with new cameras being placed not only in some of our most sacred public spaces, but on ordinary public streets all over America. And video surveillance may be on the verge of an even greater revolution due to advances in technology like Face Recognition Technology and new attempts to build centralized monitoring facilities.
An insidious new type of surveillance is becoming possible that is just as intrusive as video surveillance – what we might call “data surveillance.” As more and more of our activities leave behind “data trails,” it will soon be possible to combine information from different sources to recreate an individual’s activities with such detail that it becomes no different from being followed around all day by a detective with a video camera.
“If we do not take steps to control and regulate surveillance to bring it into conformity with our values,” the report states, “we will find ourselves being tracked, analyzed, profiled, and flagged in our daily lives to a degree we can scarcely imagine today.”
The ACLU suggests a new push for enacting laws bolstering privacy protections and limiting the invasive reach of new technologies. It also seeks a revival of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, what it calls the primary bulwark against government invasion of privacy.
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