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Freedom in a Surveillance State

American Chronicle | March 20, 2007
Brian Trent

A gladiator match between freedom, technology, and government is on the horizon, and there's no guarantee the America we know will survive it.

Consider Radio Frequency Identification tags, or RFIDs. A long-standing practice of biologists is to tag animals with tracking devices so their locations and behaviors can be monitored. In a few short years this technology will be coming to a human near you.

In recent months U.S. manufacturers announced plans to utilize RFIDs in a staggering array of products. Making use of the same technology that allows cars to sail through EZ Pass tolls, RFIDs are slated to appear on clothing, sneakers, razors, books, boots, and just about everything else that a tiny tracking device can be stitched onto or into. The initial incentive is a highly practical one: "tagged" products can be readily tracked through the distribution gauntlet from factory to store shelf. Concealed like many extant antitheft devices, they will do nothing unless touched by a "reader signal," which makes the RFID "reply" with its own unique signal – an electronic dialogue invisible to the person wearing it.

There are other uses for this remarkable invention. The shoppers of 2015 will be able to walk into a store and have their clothes "tell" the salespeople their entire purchasing history and preferences. As more and more businesses merge into megacorporations, future consumers will find themselves at the heart of an elaborate web-work in which their entire financial histories can be traded wherever they go.

This isn't science fiction. Since 1997 Mobil has been spectacularly successful with its Speedpass program while convenience-store juggernaut Wal-Mart already mandated its largest suppliers equip all products with RFID tags by January 2005. This has understandably raised the hackles of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the World Privacy Forum. It's one thing to install an anti-theft tag on a Liz Claiborne sweater; such devices are removed before you exit the store. It's quite another when your apparel can theoretically announce your location wherever you go, broadcasting your sales information. If you think identity-theft is a concern today... just wait.

Then there are the cameras that will study your every move. In Greek mythology, the hundred-eyed god Argus was the world's greatest watchdog; today Argus has become a reality in the form of thousands of surveillance cameras in such key cities worldwide as London, Sydney, and most recently Washington, D.C. After the terrorism of 9-11-01, the U.S. capital was quick to embrace the cameras, which now keep watchful eyes trained on federal buildings, mass-transit stations, and shopping areas. According to a statement by D.C. Chief of Police Charles Ramsey, America's capital "must and will expand its use of surveillance cameras, much like London, which uses 150,000 cameras to monitor its population."

The use of technology by police to enforce the law is quite different from using technology to “monitor a population.” Arresting lawbreakers isn't the same as tracking every citizen in a given prefecture. Setting up radar speed traps for lead-footed drivers doesn't mean that surveillance should be used on everyone who drives, walks, shops, and has conversations they think are private. The development of TIA, a database originally called Total Information Awareness but recently changed to Terrorist Information Awareness (for political purposes which keep the acronym, and purpose, identical) is already laying the brickwork for your data to be kept in one absolute database by one absolute police force.

Consider this: In a not-too-distant year an ordinary American – whom we'll call Eric Blair – gets up each day to go to work. Cameras mounted on every traffic light monitor his route. Computers at his workplace door register his arrival and departure. Each time he visits a store, dines out, or attends a movie, cameras controlled by such programs as TIA watch and record him and every purchase he makes.


Blair isn't even a blip in America's surveillance system so long as he sticks to his expected route like Jim Carey's creepy predicament in The Truman Show. But one day Blair deviates from his schedule. He calls in sick to work but cameras show him tooling around the city in his car. Perhaps he goes to the library to check out a "politically questionable publication." Perhaps he drives to a girlfriend's house for some "illicit premarital intimacy." Maybe he just wants to find a private place where he can hike -- a behavior that suggests "socially deviant tendencies."

This all sounds absurd but the point is that, when everyone can be tracked, anything is possible. The policies and philosophies of a given administration, no matter how seemingly preposterous, can be imposed when the infrastructure for universal surveillance exists. What you eat, discuss, watch, read, suddenly becomes digitized into maps of cold equations. Earlier this year, thousands of peaceful protestors in New York were fingerprinted by the NYPD, resulting in a neat little record of "dissidents" exercising their American rights...

Blair's world may have had its roots in 2001 when a terrorist attack in the United States triggered off new homeland security policies. But the surveillance systems originally designed to “look for terrorist behavior” were expanded to "look for deviant behavior.”

And this is where the apathetic crowd, the ones who say, “Who cares? As long as you're not doing anything wrong, why should you fret?” reveal how one-dimensional their argument is. Were the men under Taliban rule doing something wrong when they didn't grow their beards a specific length? Were Jewish families wrong for being Jewish under Nazi rule? Or perhaps the pro-democracy students at Tianamen Square? Or witches under Torqamada's administration?

In our own age, we have seen a White House administration which equates dissent with being a terrorist. We've heard George H. Bush state that he didn't think atheists should be considered American citizens – an opinion so laughably absurd it makes me wonder if either of the Bushes bothered reading the Constitution they both swore to defend, preserve, and protect.

“A despot always has his good moments” wrote Voltaire in addressing the issue of tyranny. "But an assembly of despots? Never. If a tyrant does me an injustice, I can disarm him through his mistress, his confessor, or his page ... but a company of tyrants is inaccessible to all seductions." In a world of invisible and warrantless searches, omnipresent cameras, and tracking devices, American life may well be thrust under the microscope of a legion of would-be tyrants as inaccessible to "seductions" as they are to public accountability.

The only solution that suggests itself is to monitor the would-be monitors. If the United States is to remain the bastion of liberty, personal freedom cannot be subject to some giant counting system as every move and thought are monitored. The same cozy web we've created could transform itself into a prison with one large, all-seeing spider at the center.

In such a society a future Jefferson might just be inspired to draft a future declaration. After all, there'll be a lot more at stake than highly taxed tea.

(Author's Note: A lengthier version of this article was originally published as a main feature in The Humanist magazine Nov/Dec 04, and featured in the 2005/2006 National Debate on civil liberties.)

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