August 20, 2012
The pieces come together. Within the last week I have read:
1) New software, associated with Google, will recognize customers in stores so as to offer them discounts; having your photos uploaded to allow this service will (for now) be voluntary.
2) A new surveillance system in New York will store footage from cameras in, for example, the subway, so that when an unattended package is discovered, the police can look back in time to see who left it.
3) TSA is perfecting a laser that will allow detection on travelers of trace amounts of drugs, explosives, and doubtless a wide variety of other things.
4) The government is moving toward mandating black boxes on cars to record information thought to be useful in ascribing blame in crashes.
5) Various police departments are beginning to use “drone” aircraft to monitor the population.
These are recent pieces of the coming world. They have not yet all been completely deployed and linked. Some are voluntary, for the moment. Others are in development. All are coming.
Add the now-routine tracking of passports, cameras that read every passing license plate and record the time, NSA’s automated monitoring of email, Google’s and therefore the government’s knowledge of your searches, GPS tracking of cell phones, detailed records of bank transactions, and so on. Not all of these are instantly accessible by the police. They can easily be made accessible, and they move in that direction.
In short, the technology exists for a detailed, unblinking, unforgetting watchfulness of the entire population beyond anything imagined, or perhaps imaginable, a few decades ago. This is not Fred-drank-too-much-coffee. It is happening.
The capacity of hard drives is now essentially without limit, the power of computers to sort and search infinite, and the speed of the Internet no longer a bound. Almost microscopic cameras, wireless concealable microphones, face recognition, voice recognition, recording GPs: You can buy all of this in consumer stores. The government has far better.
People speak of the onrush of the police state. I think that many do not understand how fast it comes, or how thorough it will be.
The political framework falls rapidly into place. Few or no safeguards exist, and probably few are possible. A growing authoritarianism rapidly erodes what protections we had. The courts allow random searches of passengers of trains and subways without probable cause. Warrantless tapping of personal communications is rampant, or done with secret warrants from a secret federal judge. TSA has Viper squads that stop cars at random for searches. In many places it is against the law to video the police, who everywhere become more militarized and less accountable. For practical purposes, citizens have no recourse.
At a higher level of generality, America is no longer a democracy. If you think this a rash assertion, ask yourself whether you have the slightest influence over policies that matter to you. Suppose that you want to end the wars, shrink the military, end affirmative action, genuinely change education, or reform a hostile and unworkable bureaucracy. Who do you vote for? Important policies are made in faceless bureaucracies immune to public influence. National politics employs a sort of political price-fixing, in which you are permitted to choose among a number on indistinguishable candidates and told that you are having an election.
None of this is going to stop.
Why is it happening? Some suspect a vast conspiracy to Sovietize the country. I doubt it. Don’t look for a conspiracy when human nature is an adequate explanation. Presidents never want to suffer the restraints on constitutionality, the agonizing slowness of a congress that often has little understanding of the issues; if presidents can do things by fiat, or secretly, they will.
We have now had two consecutive presidents with less than normal respect for the constitution, one a brown Plantagenet but with little grounding in European civilization, the other a privileged rich brat of limited intellect and schooling. Such as they will take any shortcut they can get away with, and there is no longer anyone to tell them no.
Men grab power when they can. Once grabbed, it stays grabbed. A police operation like DHS will always try to grow. People in power always think they know best. When a federal department has money, industry rushes to sell it things. In the case of TSA, this means new and more advanced scanners, then upgrades, and maintenance contracts, training contracts, and then a new kind of scanner, and the process repeats.
The people doing all of this are not thinking of installing totalitarianism. They are thinking dollars, promotions, power, ego, and perks.
The FBI? NSA? Federal officials in general? They know best. They are, they think, just fighting crime, terrorism, maintaining national security, what have you, and the more power they have, they better they can do this. Further, intimidating people is pleasurable. If citizens have nothing to hide, say all these cops, they have nothing to fear. If you torture terrorists, or those you think may be terrorists, well, the real world is like that. Do you want more terrorism?
A conspiracy would be preferable. You can crush a conspiracy. Human nature, which inherently drifts toward corruption, is a far tougher nut.
What difference will it make to live in a country in which the government knows everything whatever about everybody, and few safeguards against abuse exist? For most people, at first, probably not much. At first. But for people the government doesn’t like, a lot. Reporters, writers, whistle-blowers, activists, dissidents.
And we are all vulnerable. Knowledge, as someone said, is power. Few of us have spotless lives, or want them. Did you once check into a cheap motel with someone else’s spouse or a lady of the night? What do the porn sites you visit say about you? If you are, say, a politician, do you want these things to come out? Have you written compromising emails about shady deductions on your taxes, or about your boss (“a weasely dickhead and probably a latent girly-boy”)? You have bar bills or liquor purchases of $300 a week? What if you show positive on a marijuana scan at the airport, which becomes justification for a full search of your house, or dismissal from work?
Things have already reached the point at which writers of my acquaintance, who do not have the power of the Washington Post behind them, have stopped criticizing the government. Whether they are in fact in any danger of persecution – I don’t think they much are yet – almost doesn’t matter. The mere knowledge that your email can be read is intimidating, like being closely followed by a police car even when you are doing nothing wrong. We are daily being followed by more police cars, both literal and figurative.
Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well, A Brass Pole in Bangkok: A Thing I Aspire to Be, Curmudgeing Through Paradise: Reports from a Fractal Dung Beetle, Au Phuc Dup and Nowhere to Go: The Only Really True Book About Viet Nam, and A Grand Adventure: Wisdom’s Price-Along with Bits and Pieces about Mexico. Visit his blog.
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