Campaign For Liberty
Thursday, July 16, 2009
When you hear the word “security” or “safety” watch out. They are the two buzz words that are most often used by the government, whether federal or local, to fearmonger. Fear can be used to drive bad policies that otherwise would be rejected. It has consequences, internationally, nationally, and locally. Around the world Americans fight wars because they are afraid that if they do not do so they will be attacked by terrorists. Nationally, the Department of Homeland Security grows and grows, compiling extensive data bases on citizens who have done no wrong. Locally, police forces grow larger and larger in spite of falling crime rates. What is certain about the consequence of fear is that those who sell it to increase government powers do so in the full knowledge that it will cost lots of taxpayer money and will also wind up infringing on civil liberties. Make no mistake, the post 9/11 United States is moving gradually towards becoming a police state-lite and no one seems to care very much. But don’t worry, it is all happening to make you more safe and secure.
The creep of government and the march of surveillance technology go hand in hand. In Maryland and other states, the push to use ostensibly innocuous technology to enable police to monitor the public has accelerated. There has been some debate in the Washington area about the increasing use of speed cameras, but those who are opposed are usually silenced by the “safety” argument. It is reported that Montgomery County in Maryland has deployed hundreds of cameras and is raking in $53,000 a day in fines. The cameras are sited on busy roads and record the license plates of vehicles going a pre-set speed over the posted limit. Many are located where the speed limit drops, making them electronic speed traps. The fine is mailed to the owner of the car automatically and there is no appeal and no way to determine if the camera was malfunctioning. If the fine is not paid, penalties are added on to it and the offending vehicle has its re-registration blocked.
Governments use “safer” to justify anything and have done so in the past to curtail constitutional rights through abominations like the Patriot Acts and the Military Commissions Act. Burgeoning technologies like speed cameras raise serious personal liberties issue that no one is choosing to address. Why should the government have the ability to monitor the movements of a vehicle belonging to a citizen under any circumstances? Does anyone know for sure that the speed cameras are not sending their information to some data base at the Department of Homeland Security? Maybe they already are. It is difficult to know as there is no real oversight to the process and it is easy to connect data bases. If the cameras are not being multi-tasked yet just wait until someone figures out what a wealth of information they might be collecting. And when they begin recording information on law abiding citizens the government will claim that it is for everyone’s safety and security.
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Those who might argue that collecting traffic data electronically is not threatening might want to consider that information only has meaning when someone figures out how to use it. The employment of apparently innocuous data bases to police the public has been around for a while. Shortly after 9/11, CIA was sending officers all over the world, many traveling on authentic US passports issued in false names. An officer I know who was returning from Asia presented his passport to the immigration officer at Dulles Airport. The airport flipped through it, slid it through a scanner, punched a couple of numbers and then asked “What kind of car do you own?” All of the fake passports apparently had some linked data bases that were provided to make them appear more authentic, which is referred to as backstopping. In this case, the immigration officer was able to pull up additional information from state of Virginia records relating to the traveling officer who, unaware of the DMV link, was arrested, and spent a few uncomfortable hours in the slammer before being bailed by CIA security. That was in 2002. The all-information all-the-time security state has been much empowered and improved since then and it is to be presumed that there now exists an electronic data base on every citizen.
Local governments have an interest in developing ingenious ways to fine the citizenry to raise money but the more important issue is the government’s willingness and ability to electronically monitor people’s lives. The National Security Agency already has the technical capability to monitor all telephone calls taking place within the United States in real time. To judge how close we Americans are to complete surveillance it is helpful to look at the example of Europe, where state intrusion has been a fact of life for many years. The United Kingdom, which is now the most constantly and thoroughly technically surveilled country on earth, provides some hint of what the United States might become in a few years. The British government routinely monitors telephone calls and e-mail messages. Cameras provide continuous coverage of the centers of most cities and there is monitoring of all major roads and bridges by CCTV linked to monitors.
To cite only one example, back in March the British media was reporting the disappearance of Claudia Lawrence. Lawrence was working as a chef at a university in York when she disappeared. A BBC report included the following: “It was initially thought Miss Lawrence had disappeared after setting off on the three-mile walk from her home to work the following morning. But she does not appear on any CCTV footage from her normal route.”
On the basis of the CCTV, the police ruled out her having walked to work, which means that they were able to reconstruct a three mile route through the city with reasonable assurance that they had not missed Lawrence on the CCTV footage. That the police would be able to do that and no one bats an eyelash for privacy reasons is astonishing, a level of government surveillance that is several generations beyond speed cameras. It is reminiscent of Winston Smith in 1984 whose television was watching him while he was doing exercises in front of it. Maybe George Orwell knew what was coming.
And then there is the real ID. Janice Napolitano, Director of Homeland Security, has backed off from the real ID concept that would have united all relevant data bases on the federal, state, and local levels to create an identity card that would be required for all US citizens and resident aliens. Reportedly, a number of states balked at the expense of integrating their data bases, but there is a fundamental civil liberties issue that is much more important. A huge data base on all citizens incorporating detailed personal information is a formula for control by the state that essentially renders null and void the US constitution. Can Napolitano make a case that the creation of the real ID will end terrorist threats? Of course not. The sponsors of Real ID might be well intentioned and honorable, but they should understand that in the wrong hands electronic invasion of privacy can become another tool taking away individual rights and liberties and transferring control to the government. No one really knows whether a national ID it would really make anyone safer or more secure. Many European countries already have identity documents that are similar to the proposed real ID, yet they have suffered from terrorist attacks and continue to have thousands of illegal immigrants.
The creep towards the technological control of the entire US population continues. It is particularly dangerous because it is largely unregulated, free of any judicial process. There is no sign that the Obama Administration will do anything to stop the development of new technologies and policing imperatives because more government in everyone’s lives is really what the Democratic Party is all about. When government officials start talking about everyone’s safety the people should be aware that those promises are essentially empty and that exchanging liberty for the promise of security will eventually lead to the loss of both.
This article was posted: Thursday, July 16, 2009 at 4:02 am