THE U.S. GOVERNMENT now has at its disposal a technological arsenal so sophisticated and invasive as to render any constitutional protections null and void. And these technologies are being used by the government to invade the privacy of the American people.
Several years ago, government officials acknowledged that the nefarious intelligence gathering entity known as the National Security Agency (NSA) had exceeded its legal authority by eavesdropping on Americans’ private email messages and phone calls. However, these reports barely scratch the surface of what we are coming to recognize as a “security/industrial complex”—a marriage of government, military and corporate interests aimed at keeping Americans under constant surveillance.
The increasingly complex security needs of our massive federal government, especially in the areas of defense, surveillance and data management, have been met within the corporate sector, which has shown itself to be a powerful ally that both depends on and feeds the growth of governmental bureaucracy. For example, USA Today reports that five years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the homeland security business was booming to such an extent that it eclipsed mature enterprises like movie-making and the music industry in annual revenue. This security spending by the government to private corporations is forecast to exceed $1 trillion in the near future.
Money, power, control. There is no shortage of motives fueling the convergence of mega-corporations and government. But who will pay the price? The American people, of course, and you can be sure that it will take a toll on more than our pocketbooks. “You have government on a holy mission to ramp up information gathering and you have an information technology industry desperate for new markets,” says Peter Swire, the nation’s first privacy counselor in the Clinton Administration. “Once this is done, you will have unprecedented snooping abilities. What will happen to our private lives if we’re under constant surveillance?”
WE’RE AT that point now. Americans have been conditioned to accept routine incursions on their privacy rights. However, at one time, the idea of a total surveillance state tracking one’s every move would have been abhorrent to most Americans. That all changed with the 9/11 attacks. As Professor Jeffrey Rosen observes, “Before Sept. 11, the idea that Americans would voluntarily agree to live their lives under the gaze of a network of biometric surveillance cameras, peering at them in government buildings, shopping malls, subways and stadiums, would have seemed unthinkable, a dystopian fantasy of a society that had surrendered privacy and anonymity.”
We have, so to speak, gone from being a nation where privacy is king to one where nothing is safe from the prying eyes of government. In search of terrorists hiding amongst us—the proverbial “needle in a haystack,” as one official termed it—the government has taken to monitoring all aspects of our lives, from cell phone calls and emails to Internet activity and credit card transactions. Much of this data is being fed through fusion centers across the country. These are state and regional intelligence centers that collect data on you.
Wherever you go and whatever you do, you are now being watched—especially if you leave behind an electronic footprint. When you use your cell phone, you leave a record of when the call was placed, who you called, how long it lasted and even where you were at the time. When you use your ATM card, you leave a record of where and when you used the card. There is even a video camera at most locations. When you drive a car enabled with GPS, you can be tracked by satellite. And all of this once-private information about your consumer habits, your whereabouts and your activities is now being fed to the U.S. government.
THE GOVERNMENT has nearly inexhaustible resources when it comes to tracking our movements, from electronic wiretapping devices, traffic cameras and biometrics to radio-frequency identification cards, satellites and Internet surveillance. Speech recognition technology now makes it possible for the government to carry out massive eavesdropping by way of sophisticated computer systems. Phone calls can be monitored, the audio converted to text files and stored in computer databases indefinitely. And if any “threatening” words are detected—no matter how inane or silly—the record can be flagged and assigned to a government agent for further investigation. And in recent years, federal and state governments, as well as private corporations, have been amassing tools aimed at allowing them to monitor Internet content. Users are profiled and tracked in order to identify, target and even prosecute them.
In such a climate, everyone is a suspect. And you’re guilty until you can prove yourself innocent. To underscore this shift in how the government now views its citizens, just before leaving office, President Bush granted the FBI wide-ranging authority to investigate individuals or groups, regardless of whether they are suspected of criminal activity.
Here’s what a lot of people fail to understand, however: it’s not just what you say or do that is being monitored, but how you think that is being tracked and targeted. We’ve already seen this play out on the state and federal level with hate crime legislation that cracks down on hateful thoughts and expression in order to discourage so-called hateful behavior.
Total Internet surveillance is merely the next logical step in the government’s attempts to predict and, more importantly, control the populace—and it’s not as far-fetched as you might think. For example, the NSA is now designing an artificial intelligence system that is designed to anticipate your every move. In a nutshell, the NSA will feed vast amounts of the information it collects to a computer system known as Aquaint (the acronym stands for Advanced QUestion Answering for INTelligence), which the computer can then use to detect patterns and predict behavior. No information is sacred or spared. Everything from cell phone recordings and logs, to emails, to text messages, to personal information posted on social networking sites, to credit card statements, to library circulation records, to credit card histories, etc., is collected by the NSA. One NSA researcher actually quit the program, “citing concerns over the dangers in placing such a powerful weapon in the hands of a top-secret agency with little accountability.”
The NSA is not alone in its quest for power. Another massive and invasive government agency, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), is presently engaged in a power struggle with the NSA over which agency will be appointed to oversee the nation’s cybersecurity programs. One DHS official has already resigned at the prospect of the spy agency overstepping its bounds. “I have very serious concerns about the concentration of too much power in one agency,” said Rod Beckstrom, the former director of the National Cyber Security Center. “Power over information is so important, and it is so difficult to monitor, that we need to have checks and balances.”
Unfortunately, our somnambulent Congress is not heeding this warning. Legislation is presently making its way through Congress that is aimed at giving the president the authority to declare a cybersecurity emergency and limit or shut down the Internet altogether, as well as enable unprecedented federal oversight of private network administration.
The Cybersecurity Act of 2009 would authorize the creation of a Cybersecurity Czar to centralize power now held by the Pentagon, NSA, DHS and Department of Commerce. It would also require so-called “standards” to be established for private companies, as well as licensing and certification of cybersecurity professionals. Once the government is granted the authority to regulate the Internet and its users, which is what this legislation would ostensibly do, the ability to freely speak up and protest will be virtually wiped out.
Make no mistake: the Cybersecurity Act is just a wolf in sheep’s clothing, much in the way that the USA Patriot Act was an encroachment on our freedoms. It is being sold to us as a way to protect America against the next generation of terrorist attacks—cyber attacks. But all it will do is enable the government to finally turn the lock on this technological prison it has built.
So where does this leave us? If we’ve already been under surveillance for years, largely without our knowledge, what does it matter anyway? And can anything really be done to avoid moving into a total surveillance state? Frankly, technology has developed to such a point that it has outstripped the ability of human beings to control it. It has become virtually autonomous. And in the hands of government, technology is largely working against us now—except for the Internet, the freedom highway where democracy still lives. It remains, for now, our last holdout in this insidious slide towards totalitarianism.
Whitehead is founder and president of the Rutherford Institute.