The Surveillance State

A looming question: Is today's a'bornin' surveillance state in America an aberration? Or is it the unavoidable future of mankind? A spasm, like Prohibition, the Sixties, McCarthyism? Or an inevitable consequence of technological advance-something that must follow the spread of computers and networking as remorselessly as suburbs and shopping malls followed the automobile? Do we have a choice?

The technology exists today for a degree of control, of watchfulness, of spying even, unimaginable two decades ago. You can buy most of the hardware at a shopping mall. We need only use what we have: the internet, cameras, software, electronics. Step by step, sometimes inadvertently, not always realizing the consequences, we begin to use it. I don't think it is controllable.

Think about it. The capacity to store and search information, to transmit it over any distance, is today for practical purposes unlimited. A lowly mail-order pc is so powerful that it is difficult to grasp just how powerful it is. Technically, wiring the world is only slightly harder than wiring a country. The very innocence of it all makes it insidious: The tools of an iron control come into existence for practical reasons of efficiency and convenience.

Vast, multitudinous, and efficient data bases are already kept on us, innocently, by Visa, the Social Security Administration, telephone companies, banks, the police, and hundreds of others. They do it for reasons of convenience and efficiency. It is not possible to argue against these. Yet . . . when once these repositories of information are in place, linking them is technically easy. The Pentagon wants to do it.

We all know about data bases. I don't think many people know about some of the other, spookier things that exist today in the world of surveillance. For example, there are chips called RFIDs (radio-frequency identification devices).* These, smaller than a grain of rice, transmit an identifying number when they pass an electronic reader. They are expected to cost perhaps five cents each in mass manufacture. Department stores want to use them for innocent purposes of inventory control. The readers can be inconspicuously built into almost anything. You don't know you are being tracked.

They are so cheap, so easy, so useful.

The government is probably not going to force us to build these chips into things so that it can watch us. We are going to do it ourselves, for reasons of practicality and convenience. For example, RFIDs built irremovably into automobiles, so that passing police cars could read them, would make car theft far more difficult. The serial of a stolen car would go electronically onto a watch list. Put readers in toll booths, in stop lights, or in gas stations, and stolen cars would become virtually undrivable.

Who could be against stopping theft of automobiles? But the same chips would allow the government to keep records of where your car was, when. They could also be used to calculate your speed and, should it be excessive, call the cops or send you a threatening letter. We would never be unwatched.

How much surveillance are we willing to bear in order to prevent how much crime?

(There is, or was, in the Virginia suburbs of Washington a stretch of road where speed monitoring was done, though not with RFIDs. A sign flashed something like: "Slow Down! You are making 47 mph!" It was unsettling, as it was to start to cross an intersection against a light when no traffic was coming, and then to realize that a camera was pointed at you.)

Constantly being watched is intimidating, whether you are doing anything wrong or not. More and more we are watched, everywhere. In Washington's subway, if you stand near the trackway, an officious busybody in the kiosk above will admonish you over the PA system to stand back. Cameras. You begin half-consciously tailoring your behavior to the desires of the unknown chaperones.

Presumably, overt dictatorships such as China will simply impose whatever surveillance they wish. Can the galloping growth of surveillance in the United States be controlled? I think not (though I'd love to be wrong), for several reasons.

First, there is no way to object. We are not really a democracy. With an aggressive president, a legislative branch sinking into impotence, and an all-powerful and unaccountable judiciary, the public has little recourse but to do as it is told. The government will just do what it wants.

Second, fear is an effective way to get people to give up independence, privacy, and freedom. It is being used, and it is working. Tell people that they are in danger, that they are being attacked or about to be attacked or might be attacked. Tell them that the government needs to watch every detail of their lives to protect them. Throw in a bit of theater about bomb shelters, survival kits, and duct tape to give a sense of immediacy. Test the air raid sirens every Monday.

America frightens easily. We are afraid of second-hand smoke, terrorists, plastic guns, and little boys who point their fingers and say "bang." It isn't the attitude of Davy Crockett, but neither is it the America of Davy Crockett. The United States is perhaps the world's most timid nation. It will accept much in the name of security. Once people get used to the loss of rights, it is almost impossible to get them back.

Third, the mechanisms of control go so painlessly into place. When the FBI was installing its software for monitoring email, there was a brief fuss, quickly forgotten. The software is still there. People got used to airport searches. Changes to obscure laws regarding warrantless access to records do not get attention beyond the beltway. The linking of data bases doesn't make a loud bang or produce a mushroom cloud.

Finally, how much do people really care about freedom? On average, not much. Give them three hundred channels on the cable, alcohol, food, sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and they will be docile if not always precisely happy.

Americans sometimes like to think of themselves as hardy yeoman, freedom-loving individualists, Fifth Century Athenians with squirrel guns. No. Increasingly the country consists of a bored suburban peasantry, politically inert, apathetic, in intellectual decline, oscillating from cubicle to sofa. As long as the government doesn't crash through their doors, which it almost never will unless opposed, the cameras won't bother them.

There may be no way to avoid the surveillance state. People may or may not be happy with it. It may or may not be particularly oppressive. I think we are about to find out.


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Fred Reed's picture
Columns on STR: 76