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Actionable Intelligence

The Emerging Hyper-Surveillance State

July 3rd, 2005 · Written by · No Comments

Girl Camera

Three decades ago, an investigation was led by Senator Frank Church (D-Idaho) which shed light on the US government’s murky history of domestic spying operations. After conducting hundreds of interviews and examining thousands of documents, the Church Commission discovered that a myriad of government agencies — including the FBI and CIA-had used extensive amounts of surveillance to undermine the actions of law — abiding citizens. An FBI counterintelligence operation called COINTELPRO even sent letters to the spouses of political dissidents that were designed to disrupt marriages. Private information on the lives of civil rights activists was leaked in attempts to disrupt their efforts. The commission’s findings provoked public outrage resulting in the creation of a series of laws including the Privacy Protection Act of 1974. These reforms gave individuals the right to know and correct the information being collected on their activities. For years these regulations have protected our ability to maintain personal lives, but now, in the wake of a data revolution and in the midst of a “War on Terror,” they have been rendered obsolete.

Virtual Comets

The problem is that we are all constantly awash in a digital sea. Robert O’Harrow Jr., a reporter for the Washington Post and author of the book “No Place to Hide,” likens us to “virtual comets in cyberspace… [leaving behind] huge trails of electronic information.” Every time you surf the web, send an email, make a purchase with plastic, drive through an electronic toll booth, ride a train or airplane, buy a house or car, fill out customer information, get a prescription, or make a call from your cell phone, information is left behind that is recorded and stored — in many cases indefinitely. All of these types of interactions are then combined and cross-referenced with other public and private records, including DMV and voter registration information, social security and tax reports, medical and insurance records, as well as criminal records. The result is private corporations now have some of your most intimate details at their finger tips, from the type of books you read to the names and ages of your children, and they’re anxious to sell them to anyone able to pay top dollar.

The collection of this type of information isn’t new-by the early sixties some 250 assorted businesses began brokering any personal details they could acquire. At first their purposes seemed mostly benign. Companies wanted information on consumer preference in order to better market products, while lenders and insurers were interested in financial track records in order to eliminate the chance of working with high-risk individuals. By 1964 various organizations and businesses were spending $400 million each year to obtain personal information. Fast-forward to the early nineties. With the advent of the internet and the explosive advances in data storage that were occurring, everyone was jumping onto the information-age bandwagon.

The slumbering behemoth of the Surveillance-Industrial complex was awakened abruptly when the airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center on September 11th.

Companies with names like Acxiom, ChoicePoint, and LexisNexis, began gobbling up credit agencies, direct mailers, phone directories, and other record sources. With each merger the ability to create dossiers on average citizens became more fine-tuned. Soon, developers of artificial intelligence software were brought on board. This gave these companies the ability to automatically analyze billions of records, constantly on the lookout for patterns and anomalies in order to predict what an individual is likely to do. It was now possible to instantaneously find links between people, and generate large lists of persons meeting very specific criteria. Want a list of everyone who purchased sex toys in a certain geographic area? Piece of cake. Need to know who is taking a type of prescribed medication? No problem. Now that these companies had the ability to scrutinize your every action, they lay dormant, eagerly awaiting an opportunity to begin selling their services to government agencies.

The Aftermath

The slumbering behemoth of the Surveillance-Industrial complex was awakened abruptly when the airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center on September 11th. Civil libertarians braced themselves for the backlash against privacy protections that was bound to occur, but there was nothing they could do to stop the fear-based reactionary impulses at work in Washington. The Patriot Act was passed in October of 2001, and the repressive legislation opened the floodgates of potential abuse that had been held at bay for so long. Section 215 of the bill allows the government to obtain records from any business with no probable cause required. The solution in the mind of the administration was clear: as long as the private sector gathered the information, there would be almost no oversight on what kind of data could be obtained.

A man named John Poindexter, who had been forced out of the government for years due to his involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal, worked with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to create a new office known as Total Information Awareness (TIA). After its opening in January 2002, the goal of TIA was to tap into the vast reservoir of new surveillance technologies in order to sense terrorist attacks before they occur. The scope was nothing less than massive. The ambitious new office sought to keep track of everything that occurred in cyberspace and constantly check for actions considered to be warning signs of terrorism. The logo chosen by TIA was a pyramid with an all-seeing eye, the same strange Masonic symbol on the back of the dollar bill, gazing at the entire globe.

Meanwhile, a state-level initiative was taking shape with similar objectives. A company now owned by LexisNexis called Seisint developed a system called the Multi-state Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange (Matrix). Its name was an intentional reference to the computer-dominated culture portrayed in the hit movie with the same name. The company used technology originally created for marketing purposes to give criminal investigators the ability to ask deeply layered and complex questions about pools of data. Ties between places and people that could never be deciphered with the naked eye could easily be rooted out with the Matrix software.

These two plans to pry into the lives of ordinary Americans are thankfully no more. In November 2002 harsh publicity brought out a furry of outrage against Poindexter and his plans for an omniscient government entity, which led to Congress pulling the plug in September of 2003. Citing high costs and privacy concerns, almost all of the thirteen states that originally agreed to participate in the Matrix program have withdrawn their support, including Michigan. Now only four states are continuing to use the system.

Don’t be too quick to celebrate, because despite these minor victories for civil rights, the damage has been done. The information systems still in place may go by slightly less Orwellian names, but there is now hardly a law enforcement agency in the country that doesn’t use some form of data-veillance.

Police State

There is no end in sight to what those possessed with patriotic fervor will utilize in the name of pursuing threats to national security. A whole slew of new biometric technologies are now being implemented on a large scale. Retinal scans to gain access to your child’s school, face-recognition cameras in public areas, finger and handprint scans to get into work or to make financial transactions are all becoming common place. GPS systems in cell phones and automobiles have the capability to constantly monitor our whereabouts. A company founded in 2002 called Dust Networks has developed a type of sensor called “smart dust.” These battery powered devices are about the size of a bottle cap and can sense chemicals or vehicles, and may even be able to take photographs. If a few hundred are placed in a nine-square-mile area, they have the ability to communicate with each other and report findings to a central location. Radio frequency identification or RFID chips, some as small as fleas, are being embedded in products, pets, and even people. These chips can contain up to 128 bits of information, and only need to be scanned with a low-power device to reveal whatever they contain. Most people will embrace this new technology as a matter of convenience, unaware that their daily routines are being permanently recorded.

Our nation is often quick to forget its own history. A history of blacklists and red scares. A history of illegal break-ins and arms scandals. A history of racial profiling and interment camps. At the slightest mention of an enemy lurking among us, we are easily persuaded to give up our essential liberties. As we instill our version of freedom around the globe, by force if necessary, we ironically sacrifice the very anonymity that enables us to have a working democracy at home. As the surveillance tools available grow more and more precise and advanced, so does the potential for abuse when they fall into the wrong hands. And sometimes, the wrong hands may belong to the very same authority figures who promise they are only doing what is in our best interest. Living in a police state with our every action weighed against us will not make us feel safer, but it does have the potential to force us to conform to a set standard of obedience.

Tags: Essays · Nonfiction · ·

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