Saturday, December 02, 2006

The Surveillance Industrial Complex

Information Technology and weakened privacy laws have diminished our privacy rights and are eroding our freedoms to a point never before seen in this country. Equally as dangerous is how the real and perceived treat of terrorism has given rise to a new and powerful industrial base centered on surveillance technology. Acting under the broad mandate of the “war” on terror, the United States security establishment is systematically expanding its surveillance capacity by pressing into the private sector, in order to monitor and report upon the activities of American citizens. This ongoing push of the Federal Government into our daily lives, spurred by revolutionary developments in communications, computers, databases, cameras, monitor and sensors, is helping to create a nightmarishly Orwellian surveillance society. Even more alarming than the rise of this new Surveillance Industrial Complex is how it has coincided with the massive erosion of our legal and constitutional rights; the very foundations that this country was founded upon.

One obstacle to the government’s goal of monitoring the activities of all of its citizens will likely remain in place regardless of current technological advancement. There will always be many more of us than there are of them and thus the ratio of those watched to those watching will always be dramatically skewed. Unfortunately, Big Brother is aggressively trying to overcome this obstacle by enlisting the services of private individuals and corporations to serve as auxiliary members of its growing surveillance network. This will allow the government…our government to overcome the practical limits on its resources or its State Administrative Capacity. Enlisting corporations and private sector individuals gives the government unlimited access to a virtually endless supply of private data, providing Uncle Sam with detailed insight into our daily lives. It also allows for the development of “Swarm Intelligence” born of distributed surveillance techniques, in which scattered, independent sources of information are developed and pieced together to form the type of Big Picture analysis that the Federal Government could never develop on its own. Having the private sector involved in information gathering and data mining also helps to create and maintain uncertainty in society as to who you can trust with your information, thus amplifying the effects of surveillance on our collective behavior and psychology, while offering the government a path of least resistance for working around what few existing privacy laws remain on the books.

So should it surprise you when it was reported today that our government has been quietly using a system that tracks airline passengers meal choices and seat preferences, using the information to develop secret dossiers including computer generated scores designed to rate each traveler as a potential criminal or terrorist. These scores are currently assigned to those who enter and leave the country and after a computer assesses their travel records, where they are from, how they paid for a ticket, their motor vehicle records, past one way ticket purchases, seating preferences and what they order for lunch. Oh and by the way, you will never know about the content of information on your dossier, you will not be allowed to directly challenge these assessments and the government plans to keep them on file for 40 years. Currently this Automated Targeting System or ATS is the most advanced and invasive targeting system in the world. Now the folks over at Homeland Security say that ATS will dramatically improve our ability to spot criminals, terrorists and other threats. However if you read between the lines…just a little… you will notice how the lines have become blurred. These security and surveillance systems are supposed to be used for the “war” on terrorism not on domestic criminal activity or ambiguous “other threats”. And if you think that this only effects international travelers you had better think again. A similar Homeland Security project called Secure Fly was developed over two years ago for domestic flights, but was temporarily banned by congress until it can pass ten specific tests for accuracy. Once it does, the government will share the data developed from ATS and Secure Fly with state, local and foreign governments and in some cases it will be shared with the courts, congress and select private contractors. It seems as though the only person they will not share your information with is you. Are you scared yet?

Insufficient powers of surveillance was not the problem on 9/11; a congressional investigation into the attacks as well as the report issued by the National Commission on Terrorist Acts Upon The United States (the “9/11 Report”), found that the governments failure to prevent the attacks was as a direct result of fundamental organizational breakdowns in the intelligence community and the governments failure to make effective use of the surveillance powers it already has. However, just as the Cold War brought about the rise of the Military Industrial Complex or MIC, the threat of terrorism is providing a fertile environment for the rise of the equally dangerous Surveillance Industrial Complex or SIC (now that’s funny). So instead of making use of and augmenting the information systems and surveillance apparatus already in place, our government seized the opportunity at hand and realized that there is far more money to be made developing complex, cutting edge technological solutions than there is in simply sorting out and fixing those existing organizational, bureaucratic or basic security problems. Why strengthen the cockpit doors on all airliners or provide professional training for airport screeners when you can have ATS, Secure Fly, Carnivore or ECHELON?

The reality is that there is a massive new infrastructure for everyday background checks on Americans being built right now. Through the Patriot Act, the government has created a system for near-total surveillance of our nations financial system. The Patriot Act also mandates that companies transform themselves into surrogate agents of the government. The truth is that sifting through the lives of billions of people on a daily basis is never going to consistently uncover that one in a million terrorist…ever. These actions have eroded the foundation of American life and American principals, seriously undermining our faith in the integrity of our government while losing friends, prestige and credibility abroad. The problem is that there is no Democratic or Republican answer. As I have said before they are from the same church just different pews. We need a viable, third party…not a fringe party with fringe candidates. We need representation that understands the reality of our situation in the world today and looks to develop policy accordingly. What we currently have is quite the opposite. We currently are trying to force the rest of the world into conforming to our views and policies, stubbornly refusing to admit that our view of the world may be antiquated and flawed. We better stand up and do something now or there will be nothing left of this country so many of our sons and daughters fought and died for and nothing left of this country that any of us will recognize.

Think About it

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