Since 9/11, Americans have become accustomed to almost daily reports of new and increasingly intrusive ways in which their government wants to examine the minutia of their daily lives. We were all afraid after the horrifying attacks that day, and our fear allowed us to be put into a position where the loss of our civil liberties and privacy seemed the only way we could remain safe. Instead, the resulting climate of suspicion and lost trust has left us feeling less secure than any generation before, as we are spied upon from every conceivable vantage point. Most of us can name a few of the recent controversies and proposed surveillance plans cooked up by the current administration, but for those of you who need a refresher, here is my own personal list of the top 10 most frightening ways our government either does, or would like to, spy on its own citizens.

10. Domestic Spy Satellites

In May, 2007, Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnels sent a memo to Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff directing him to begin the process of allowing civilian agencies and law enforcement to use information from domestic spy satellites. Previously, NASA and the USGS had access to only the most basic information from the images, expressly for scientific and environmental study. Now, any authorized agency could have access to real-time, high-res images from anywhere in the nation, with the stated purpose being border security and smuggling operations. Although it has already funded the program, Congress has asked that privacy concerns be answered before the final go-ahead, and Homeland Security is currently preparing a report.

  1. Biometric Passports

In 2005, the U.S. State Department began issuing new e-passports, which included an RFID tag embedded in the cover that contained the same information as the paper version, as well as a digital photograph which can be scanned with facial recognition software. Although fingerprints are not currently included on the devices, the chip does contain enough memory to add that information. To address privacy concerns, the government enabled the chips with anti-skimming technology, although it has subsequently been proven that RFID readers placed 1 meter away can easily read the chips. Since August, 2007, only e-passports have been issued by the U.S. Government.

  1. Cyber-Tracking

Google, MSN, AOL, Yahoo, and other top search engines already keep massive databases of information concerning Americans’ online search habits. In 2006, the U.S. Justice Department demanded that they all turn over millions of search records in their attempt to revive the Child Online Protection Act. All complied but Google, who filed suit to stop the government’s action. Luckily, a federal judge agreed, finding the records request overreaching. While it may seem a noble cause to collect evidence against child predators, both the databases and the government’s attempts to mine them are frightening in their potential to invade our privacy. The search engines claim they use the information for marketing and ad targeting, but its very existence is disturbing, to say the least. In February 2007, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) introduced a bill which would require ISP’s to retain the search data of their customers, with a penalty for failure to comply of one year in prison.

  1. The Terrorist Watch List

Since its inception in 2004, the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Database has grown to include an astounding 860,000 names, most of them American citizens, including thousands infants and small children. According to the FBI website, the list was created to allow “one stop shopping” for government screeners, and includes “only individuals who are known or appropriately suspected to be or have been engaged in conduct constituting, in preparation for, in aid of, or related to terrorism.” Wow, that’s a lot of terrorists. The government claims that the inflated number is mainly caused by the numerous aliases terrorists use, but also acknowledges that the system does need to be tweaked somewhat. Of course, you only find out if you are on the list if you show up at an airport and are refused your flight. Next, a messy and time-consuming process of proving you are not a terrorist ensues, which does not, unfortunately, guarantee that you will be taken off of it. You are also not allowed access to the reason you were placed on the list in the first place – that information is classified. The FBI says it is working on improving and streamlining the list, while more than 15,000 people are currently are appealing their inclusion.

  1. Spying by Civil Servants

Another way the Bush administration has discovered to spy on Americans without a warrant is through the use of civil servants and service personnel. Since firemen and EMT’s do not need a warrant to enter someone’s home, they are now encouraged to be on the lookout for suspicious materials and/or activity while they are in the act of putting out fires and saving lives. Librarians have also been targeted, as the government is interested in tracking which books you check out. In 2002, Bush proposed that other workers, namely repairmen and postal employees, also spy on their customers and report suspicious behavior to the FBI. Creating a system where ordinary citizens make a practice of spying on one another is dangerous, abhorrent, and utterly frightening. Somewhere, George Orwell is weeping.

  1. Illegal and Warrantless Wiretapping

In 2005, the New York Times broke the story that the NSA had been wiretapping phone calls of Americans without warrants. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales acknowledged the practice, which the Bush Administration called the “Terrorist Surveillance Program”, saying that since at least one end of the communications were in a foreign country, the government did not, in fact, need a warrant, even though potentially millions of American citizens were being surveilled without due process of law. Dozens of lawsuits were subsequently filed, including class action suits against the likes of AT&T, who voluntarily provided the government with customers’ phone numbers, call records, and email messages. In November 2007, the House of Representatives passed the Restore Act, which gives oversight of foreign surveillance back to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and denies immunity to telecom companies who claim that lawsuits resulting from their complicity will send them into bankruptcy. Bush insists that not granting immunity will reveal too many classified details about the program, and has vowed to veto the bill.

  1. Public Video Surveillance

In recent years public video surveillance has increased astronomically, as fears of crime coupled with cheap technology have prompted many local governments to install cameras on street corners as well as in retail stores, airports and sports venues. Studies have shown, however, that the presence of cameras does not, in fact, deter crime, even in Great Britain, where over 150,000 cameras catch each and every citizen over 300 times per day. While it may be an admirable ideal to use the images to identify criminals, the potential for abuse by government officials is staggering. As the technology increases, that potential is only magnified. Do you want your every move tracked and watched by a computer that has been programmed to make judgments and choices about your life?

Hand-in-hand with public cameras are the latest advancements in face recognition technology, now used in a handful of applications and venues but coming soon to a street corner near you. Imagine the capability of capturing your face on video, then matching it to records which contain all your personal information and the intimate details of your life, all scrutinized by the government in the name of security. Frightening indeed.

  1. DNA Databanks

Another growing threat to privacy in the name of criminal deterrence is the buildup of DNA databases by law enforcement agencies. Originally meant to track and identify the guilty (and prevent the conviction of the innocent) in heinous crimes, all 50 states are currently keeping genetic tissue samples taken from an ever-broadening definition of arrestees, including innocent citizens who are later released or found not guilty in court. In January of 2006, President Bush signed into law the “DNA Fingerprint Act”, authored by Senator John Kyl (R-AZ). The new law greatly expanded federal authority in DNA evidence, including the right to collect and permanently store DNA from anyone arrested, as well as any detained non-U.S. citizen. It was attached to the very popular Violence Against Women Act, and therefore received broad bi-partisan support and little public scrutiny.

Once used only for identification purposes, increasingly sophisticated technology is allowing a broad range of genetic information to be gleaned from these samples, providing a serious and continuing threat to 4th amendment protection.

  1. Real ID

Signed into law by President Bush in 2005, the Real ID Act, if accepted and implemented by all 50 states, would effectively create a national identity card. All state-issued id’s (driver’s licenses) would be federally standardized, and all cards would be required to have “common machine-readable technology” with encoded information about the holder, information easily accessible by anyone with a low cost card reader (including, of course, identity thieves). Besides being enormously expensive to implement by the states, who would have to shoulder the cost of redesigning, issuing, and maintaining the new id’s and database, the idea has been under fire from a large percentage of the American public, with both the ACLU and progressive organizations as well as conservatives and right-wing groups opposed to such a massive invasion of privacy. The excuse for its passage was the usual fear-mongering about tracking terrorists, but the federal government has failed to prove that a national id card would in any way prevent terrorism. In fact, a national identity card could easily become tantamount to a “national passport”, checked at state borders, scanned by retail stores, consolidating information which could easily be tracked by governmental entities. On the road to a military, fascist state, national identity cards are a crucial step.

  1. Total Information Awareness

Conceived by DARPA (Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency) in 2002, the Information Awareness Office was created in order to develop information technologies which would ultimately lead to complete access for governmental agencies to an all-encompassing network of integrated personal data. The stated goal was, of course, the tracking and arrest of terrorists, but the fact that over three-quarters of a million American citizens are currently on the “Terrorist Watch List” only scratches the surface of the potential abuse of such a system. As an “ultra large-scale database”, TIA would contain everything from medical and financial records to shopping habits, criminal records, communications, web surfing habits, email messages, and any other conceivable bit of information available on an individual. The program’s motto is “knowledge is power”, a phrase which is truly frightening in its Orwellian implications. In 2003, Congress defunded the office, although many of its core research and implementation projects have continued under different names and in different agencies.

1 Comment:

  1. said...
    The biggest threat is that we lost all our privacy and we don't even know it.

    Life your life and have fun.

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