John Whitehead's Commentary
Creepy, Calculating and Controlling: All the Ways Big Brother Is Watching You
“You had to live—did live, from habit that became instinct—in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.”—George Orwell, 1984
None of us are perfect. All of us bend the rules occasionally. Even before the age of overcriminalization, when the most upstanding citizen could be counted on to break at least three laws a day without knowing it, most of us have knowingly flouted the law from time to time.
Indeed, there was a time when most Americans thought nothing of driving a few miles over the speed limit, pausing (rather than coming to a full stop) at a red light when making a right-hand turn if no one was around, jaywalking across the street, and letting their kid play hookie from school once in a while. Of course, that was before the era of speed cameras that ticket you for going even a mile over the posted limit, red light cameras that fine you for making safe “rolling stop” right-hand turns on red, surveillance cameras equipped with facial recognition software mounted on street corners, and school truancy laws that fine parents for “unexcused” absences.
My, how times have changed.
Today, there’s little room for indiscretions, imperfections, or acts of independence—especially not when the government can listen in on your phone calls, monitor your driving habits, track your movements, scrutinize your purchases and peer through the walls of your home. That’s because technology—specifically the technology employed by the government against the American citizenry—has upped the stakes dramatically so that there’s little we do that is not known by the government.
In such an environment, you’re either a paragon of virtue, or you’re a criminal.
If you haven’t figured it out yet, we’re all criminals. This is the creepy, calculating yet diabolical genius of the American police state: the very technology we hailed as revolutionary and liberating has become our prison, jailer, probation officer, Big Brother and Father Knows Best all rolled into one.
Consider that on any given day, the average American going about his daily business will be monitored, surveilled, spied on and tracked in more than 20 different ways, by both government and corporate eyes and ears. A byproduct of this new age in which we live, whether you’re walking through a store, driving your car, checking email, or talking to friends and family on the phone, you can be sure that some government agency, whether the NSA or some other entity, is listening in and tracking your behavior. As I point out in my book, A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, this doesn’t even begin to touch on the corporate trackers that monitor your purchases, web browsing, Facebook posts and other activities taking place in the cyber sphere.
For example, police have been using Stingray devices mounted on their cruisers to intercept cell phone calls and text messages without court-issued search warrants. Thwarting efforts to learn how and when these devices are being used against an unsuspecting populace, the FBI is insisting that any inquiries about the use of the technology be routed to the agency “in order to allow sufficient time for the FBI to intervene to protect the equipment/technology and information from disclosure and potential compromise.”
Doppler radar devices, which can detect human breathing and movement within in a home, are already being employed by the police to deliver arrest warrants and are being challenged in court. One case in particular, United States v Denson, examines how the Fourth Amendment interacts with the government’s use of radar technology to peer inside a suspect’s home. As Judge Neil Gorsuch recognizes in the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeal’s ruling in the case, “New technologies bring with them not only new opportunities for law enforcement to catch criminals but also new risks for abuse and new ways to invade constitutional rights.”
License plate readers, yet another law enforcement spying device made possible through funding by the Department of Homeland Security, can record up to 1800 license plates per minute. However, it seems these surveillance cameras can also photograph those inside a moving car. Recent reports indicate that the Drug Enforcement Administration has been using the cameras in conjunction with facial recognition software to build a “vehicle surveillance database” of the nation’s cars, drivers and passengers.
Sidewalk and “public space” cameras, sold to gullible communities as a sure-fire means of fighting crime, is yet another DHS program that is blanketing small and large towns alike with government-funded and monitored surveillance cameras. It’s all part of a public-private partnership that gives government officials access to all manner of surveillance cameras, on sidewalks, on buildings, on buses, even those installed on private property.
Couple these surveillance cameras with facial recognition and behavior-sensing technology and you have the makings of “pre-crime” cameras, which scan your mannerisms, compare you to pre-set parameters for “normal” behavior, and alert the police if you trigger any computerized alarms as being “suspicious.”
Capitalizing on a series of notorious abductions of college-aged students, several states are pushing to expand their biometric and DNA databases by requiring that anyone accused of a misdemeanor have their DNA collected and catalogued. However, technology is already available that allows the government to collect biometrics such as fingerprints from a distance, without a person’s cooperation or knowledge. One system can actually scan and identify a fingerprint from nearly 20 feet away.
Radar guns have long been the speed cop’s best friend, allowing him to hide out by the side of the road, identify speeding cars, and then radio ahead to a police car, which does the dirty work of pulling the driver over and issuing a ticket. Never mind that what this cop is really doing is using an electronic device to search your car without a search warrant, violating the Fourth Amendment and probable cause. Yet because it’s a cash cow for police and the governments they report to, it’s a practice that is not only allowed but encouraged. Indeed, developers are hard at work on a radar gun that can actually show if you or someone in your car is texting. No word yet on whether the technology will also be able to detect the contents of that text message.
It’s a sure bet that anything the government welcomes (and funds) too enthusiastically is bound to be a Trojan horse full of nasty surprises. Case in point: police body cameras. Hailed as the easy fix solution to police abuses, these body cameras—made possible by funding from the Department of Justice—will turn police officers into roving surveillance cameras. Of course, if you try to request access to that footage, you’ll find yourself being led a merry and costly chase through miles of red tape, bureaucratic footmen and unhelpful courts.
The “internet of things” refers to the growing number of “smart” appliances and electronic devices now connected to the internet and capable of interacting with each other and being controlled remotely. These range from thermostats and coffee makers to cars and TVs. Of course, there’s a price to pay for such easy control and access. That price amounts to relinquishing ultimate control of and access to your home to the government and its corporate partners. For example, while Samsung’s Smart TVs are capable of “listening” to what you say, thereby allow users to control the TV using voice commands, it also records everything you say and relays it to a third party.
Then again, the government doesn’t really need to spy on you using your smart TV when the FBI can remotely activate the microphone on your cellphone and record your conversations. The FBI can also do the same thing to laptop computers without the owner knowing any better.
Government surveillance of social media such as Twitter and Facebook is on the rise. Americans have become so accustomed to the government overstepping its limits that most don’t even seem all that bothered anymore about the fact that the government is spying on our emails and listening in on our phone calls.
Drones, which will begin to take to the skies en masse this year, will be the converging point for all of the weapons and technology already available to law enforcement agencies. This means drones that can listen in on your phone calls, see through the walls of your home, scan your biometrics, photograph you and track your movements, and even corral you with sophisticated weaponry.
And then there’s the Internet and cell phone kill switch, which enables the government to shut down Internet and cell phone communications without Americans being given any warning. It’s a practice that has been used before in the U.S., albeit in a limited fashion. In 2005, cell service was disabled in four major New York tunnels (reportedly to avert potential bomb detonations via cell phone). In 2009, those attending President Obama’s inauguration had their cell signals blocked (again, same rationale). And in 2011, San Francisco commuters had their cell phone signals shut down (this time, to thwart any possible protests over a police shooting of a homeless man).
It’s a given that the government’s tactics are always more advanced than we know, so there’s no knowing what new technologies are already being deployed against without our knowledge. Certainly, by the time we learn about a particular method of surveillance or new technological gadget, it’s a sure bet that the government has been using it covertly for years already. And if other governments are using a particular technology, you can bet that our government used it first. For instance, back in 2011, it was reported that the government of Tunisia was not only monitoring the emails of its citizens but was actually altering the contents of those emails in order to thwart dissidents. How much do you want to bet that government agents have already employed such tactics in the U.S.?
Apart from the obvious dangers posed by a government that feels justified and empowered to spy on its people and use its ever-expanding arsenal of weapons and technology to monitor and control them, we’re approaching a time in which we will be forced to choose between obeying the dictates of the government—i.e., the law, or whatever a government officials deems the law to be—and maintaining our individuality, integrity and independence.
When people talk about privacy, they mistakenly assume it protects only that which is hidden behind a wall or under one’s clothing. The courts have fostered this misunderstanding with their constantly shifting delineation of what constitutes an “expectation of privacy.” And technology has furthered muddied the waters.
However, privacy is so much more than what you do or say behind locked doors. It is a way of living one’s life firm in the belief that you are the master of your life, and barring any immediate danger to another person (which is far different from the carefully crafted threats to national security the government uses to justify its actions), it’s no one’s business what you read, what you say, where you go, whom you spend your time with, and how you spend your money.
Unfortunately, privacy as we once knew it is dead.
We now find ourselves in the unenviable position of being monitored, managed and controlled by our technology, which answers not to us but to our government and corporate rulers. This is the fact-is-stranger-than-fiction lesson that is being pounded into us on a daily basis.
Thus, to be an individual today, to not conform, to have even a shred of privacy, and to live beyond the reach of the government’s roaming eyes and technological spies, one must not only be a rebel but rebel.
Even when you rebel and take your stand, there is rarely a happy ending awaiting you. You are rendered an outlaw. This is the message in almost every dystopian work of fiction, from classic writers such as George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Philip K. Dick and Ray Bradbury to more contemporary voices such as Margaret Atwood, Lois Lowry and Suzanne Collins.
How do you survive in the American police state?
We’re running out of options. As Philip K. Dick, the visionary who gave us Minority Report and Blade Runner, advised:
“If, as it seems, we are in the process of becoming a totalitarian society in which the state apparatus is all-powerful, the ethics most important for the survival of the true, free, human individual would be: cheat, lie, evade, fake it, be elsewhere, forge documents, build improved electronic gadgets in your garage that’ll outwit the gadgets used by the authorities.”