One Nation, Under Surveillance
When I was in high school there was a popular song by Bobby Vee, “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes.” Little did I know then how literal the expression would become. Add another thousand eyes for the day. We are all under constant supervision and monitoring, by any number of government and corporate interests. All new cars and smart phones have GPS now, so your location can be tracked (if necessary). Edward Snowden revealed the extent of NSA’s scooping up of all our electronic communications — it’s called metadata — all without warrants or accountability. Then head of NSA, Keith Alexander, explained in a Congressional hearing that if you want to find a needle in a haystack, you need the entire haystack. They assure us that a warrant signed by a judge is necessary before they can examine the content. If you believe that, I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you. Intelligent experts tell us there’s a wealth of information in metadata; who you call, who calls you, their location, your location, and more. From this, an individual’s movements can be traced, and daily routines and habits catalogued. The NSA’s unofficial motto has always been “Collect it all.” We now know that the NSA has been collecting it all since back during the George W. Bush years, and that telecommunications companies that provided a “back door” to the NSA were given retroactive immunity. I think I need another cup of Kafka.
All this digital data is gathered up and stored in a massive million square foot facility in Bluffdale, Utah. It gets filtered for trigger words like bomb, explosion, and . . . oh crap. I think this post just docked in Bluffdale. Last year we learned about the “Insider Threat” program, which began in 2011, after the Chelsea (then Bradley) Manning revelations. Employees are to scrutinize the behavior of their co-workers, and report anything suspicious. There are heavy penalties for failing to report “high-risk persons or behaviors.” It’s also a great opportunity to rat out some co-worker you don’t like.
Police departments around the nation have been using a technology called Stingray for years. Briefcase-sized, it’s a cell tower simulator that rides along in a patrol car, sweeping up not only some suspect’s calls, but all the other calls in the immediate area. These require only a low-level court order called a PEN register, aka “trap & trace.” And now we find out that twelve federal agencies are using it too, or an upgrade called Hailstorm. An Oct. 26, 2015 article in the Guardian.uk is titled: “IRS possessed Stingray cell phone surveillance gear, documents reveal.” The article went on to say that local police and prosecutors are required by the FBI to sign a non-disclosure agreement which mandates them to withdraw or even drop cases rather than risk revealing their use. And don’t forget thousands of drones, either government or privately owned.
The “Beware” program is a mobile app sold by a private company, Intrado. It crunches commercial and public databases for a target’s social media pages and comments, and in seconds assigns a threat level of yellow, green or red. Intrado’s Vice President, Steve Reed, boasted in an interview (with urgent.com) of Beware’s ability to pick up “any comments that could be construed as offensive.” Since it’s for sale to anyone, it’s become very popular with police and private intelligence agencies (or creeps like pedophiles). By the way, about 70% of our national intelligence work is farmed out to private contractors. Edward Snowden was working for one of them, Booz Allen Hamilton.
Beware is the latest incarnation of what used to be called RATS — remote access tools, which have been around for years. But it seems like we’re getting into an area here known as “predictive policing,” which makes me think of a Philip K. Dick story made into a terrific film, “Minority Report.” And just wait till they’ve perfected mental telepathy! We keep being told that all of this is solely to protect the American people from the terrorists, to make us secure. But I’m hearing the dusky voice of a Clint Eastwood character, whispering in my ear: “So I guess you gotta ask yourself ‘Do I feel secure, today?’ Well, do ya, punk?” This is not what democracy looks like. This is what a locked-down, national security police state looks like. I remember the good old days, when they just tapped your phone.
As if all this weren’t bad enough, we are constantly being tracked by entities like Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, and countless others. That includes those loyalty cards the supermarkets give you to use. A story came out this last August about Microsoft’s new Windows 10 system, and its included spyware. By installing it you agree to something called an End User License Agreement, which gives Microsoft access to your emails and all other on line traffic, as well as your browsing history (turns out, it was also in Windows 7 and 8). Then Microsoft “shares” it with the highest bidder. Google does it, too. Right now in the EU there’s legal action by the European Court of Justice that allows people to apply to have old and/or incorrect data about them to be removed from Google’s database. We need something like that. Facebook is employing facial recognition technology to compile a gigantic database that must make the FBI and NSA envious. In these cases, we are voluntarily giving up our private information for ease of access to the internet paradise. It seems like most folks are just fine with that.
Have you bought the new Smart TV? It contains a camera and microphone, which can be activated even when the device is off. The manual cautions against speaking near it when discussing confidential matters. The manufacturer, Samsung, adds the same warning. It’s like the ever-present telescreen in Orwell’s 1954. Why would your TV want to record your doings? For the same reason as everyone else discussed above — information is the currency in this digital age. We are not only the customers, we are all commodities now. Businesses with your personal information can market individually to your needs and interests.
Radio frequency IDs, or RFIDs, are tiny chips being put into everything now, from your passport to your drivers’ license. Smart Meters are replacing the old analog electric meters. They will relay your usage of everything electric in real time. RFIDs are being put into clothing, appliances, just about anything on store shelves. Soon, your salad dressing will know exactly what you’ve been up to. The surveillance society now extends to your job, too. Employers are increasingly installing systems to monitor employees’ every move. UPS drivers are watched constantly for every stop, delivery, and bathroom break. It’s the same at Amazon, especially for pickers. They work in cavernous warehouses, filling customer orders, and are watched for their speed and accuracy.
Allstate Insurance has a new policy promising to save customers on insurance rates, called “Drive Wise.” You will be rewarded with lower premiums if you prove to be a good driver. In other words, it’s watching every acceleration, turn of the wheel, your parking style, every move. I don’t know if it includes an in-car camera. Why not? Cameras are everywhere. Did I say a thousand eyes? Make that a billion. Digital cameras, phone cameras (nearly all of us have one), dashboard cams, body cams, webcams, stores and parking lots — when I said everywhere, I meant it. And there’s no doubt they benefit the public good, catching thieves, robbers, and way, way too many out-of-control cops. I’m all for baby monitors. Citizens with smart phones are potential journalists, if they’re in the right time and place.
We are no longer entitled to the privacy of our insides. The drug testing industry — a cash cow scam if there ever was one — is raking in the dough. They’re even marketing a home kit for you to test your children. Biometric bracelets, like the ones given to you at Disneyland, can help find lost humans. They can also be hacked. But the biggest advance for inside surveillance is the SmartPill G.I. Monitoring System. It’s comprised of a capsule slightly larger than a multivitamin (about ½ inch by an inch) that you swallow, a SmartPill data receiver, a SmartPill activation fixture, a SmartPill docking station (?), and a system component loaded with Motil GI software. Battery life of the capsule is five days. It provides gastric emptying time, small bowel transit time, colonic transit time, combined small and large bowel transit time, and whole gut transit time. I’ve been waiting forty years to use this joke — that’s some sic transit, Gloria. In this case the pun is embedded within the translation of that Latin phrase, sic transit gloria: “Thus passes glory.”
The early 19th Century philosopher Jeremy Bentham originated a concept, the panopticon. It was a cylindrical prison with observation tower in the center. Inmates didn’t know when or if they were being observed. Another philosopher on power and its exercise, Michel Foucault, further developed the idea of panopticism. To boil it down, if a society feels it is under constant supervision and surveillance, people will police their own behavior. They will self-censor, even if subconsciously. We the Sheeple. A new term has been invented to describe this new normal, inverted totalitarianism. What can we do? Well, if it makes you feel better, you can encrypt some of your data (the Tor project, et al). Other than that, get used to it. America is the cover girl on the current issue of Dysfunctional Society magazine. The idea of privacy, even the possibility of being anonymous, is as obsolete as the buggy whip or the rotary dial telephone. I am sorry if I was expected to also provide solutions to this problem, so I’ll go out with another lyric from my childhood: “I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden.”