The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution reads, "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized." Too few Americans are really aware of the language in that amendment. While many of us are vaguely aware that we have certain rights with regard to search and seizure, we do not spend nearly enough time considering the implications. While we as Americans are perhaps hardwired to reject overt, unreasonable searches of our persons, cars and dwellings, we have become far too complacent concerning searches that do not inconvenience or otherwise disturb us. This is generating a societal trend that manifests as omnipresent surveillance, as ever-more-invasive scrutiny, of your person and your property – because you do not notice it.
Previously in Technocracy, we discussed the convenience of government theft, in which the myriad technological conveniences available to taxpayers make it possible for them to pay their taxes with money they never see. This makes us complacent because, if we never really have or are aware of our earnings in the first place, we don't truly miss them when they are confiscated by a greedy, wasteful government. Precisely the same thing occurs when ever-more-sophisticated, developing technology is applied to the realm of government surveillance of American citizens. As the technology becomes more discreet, less overt, insidiously, passively unnoticed, our tolerance for government scrutiny of every aspect of our public lives (no to mention, increasingly, our previously private lives) increases accordingly. Our lack of vigilance concerning our Fourth Amendment rights is eroding those rights. Technology lies behind both the design and the execution of this gradual but inexorable abrogation.
Consider the news stories you have heard in which a crime has been committed, or a citizen has gone missing. In almost every case, video footage will be released that shows the criminal before, during or after the crime, or that shows the missing person in some public place just prior to the disappearance. This would not be possible if not for the saturation of surveillance cameras in public places. According to Popular Mechanics, there are 30 million surveillance cameras deployed in the United States, shooting roughly 4 billion hours of footage per week. Advances in processing power and data storage capacity make it ever easier to take, keep and search such video. Coupled with facial recognition technology, the data gathered is far-reaching and invasive – and as this trend continues, we are ever more under the eye of Big Brother whenever we are out of the house. Meanwhile, other forms of imaging, including Google Earth's "Street View," are watching those houses themselves.
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Increasing use of red light cameras and other traffic surveillance is introducing serious consequences for the public behavior being caught on those many recording devices, too. In New York state's capital, Albany, red light cameras were used to issue a whopping 1,100 tickets last year – a staggering increase over numbers in the single or double digits in previous years (12 tickets were issued for red light violations at the same intersection in 2003, for example). Law enforcement monitoring of your movements doesn't stop with traffic violations, however; elements within law enforcement want to be able to track your movements using Global Positioning System (GPS) technology. In some cases, the courts are helping them violate your Fourth Amendment rights.
New York state's highest court struck down two lower courts in stating that police must obtain a warrant before placing a GPS tracking device on someone's car; that means two lower courts said it was OK first. Let's not forget, too, that the higher court's decision was split 4-3. All of this happened after a Wisconsin court said that police can track anyone for virtually any reason without a warrant.
Not content to track your movements in public places, or to take pictures of your home and your parked cars before making them searchable on the Internet, nor simply to give you tickets for each and every traffic rule you violate (however mildly), the forces of omnipresent surveillance have found a new way to invade your privacy in a completely passive, unobtrusive way: They can now look at you naked at the airport. While this amounts to a strip search for each and every passenger, air travelers won't notice it because it all occurs using scanning technology. No airport goon need lay a finger on any human being, but the strip searches go on nonetheless.
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If we do not monitor, catalog, protest and resist these invasions of our Fourth Amendment rights, we run the risk of following the U.K.'s lead down the road to government tyranny. The Wall Street Journal reported on Britain's seemingly earnest desire to make Orwell's dystopian vision of "1984" a chilling reality. Britain is easily the most surveilled industrialized nation on the planet; the cameras watching British citizens are pitched with slogans like "More CCTV means more security for you," and the disturbing, "Secure Beneath the Watchful Eyes" (this last featuring Orwellian floating eyeballs in the skies over a double-decker bus).
If you think it can't happen hear, think again; your government actively seeks this power and more. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has requested, for the 2010 budget year, funding for an Advanced Electronic Surveillance program, aka "Going Dark." According to ABC News, this is the name applied to a shared high-technology "lawful interception program." In other words, it concerns FBI surveillance of Voice Over Internet (VOIP) phones like Skype and other rapidly evolving technological developments with which the Bureau must "keep up" if it is to keep spying on our citizens thoroughly and efficiently.
Technology marches ever forward ... and as it expands, your Fourth Amendment rights diminish. We cannot afford not to raise the alarm now. It may already be too late.