Pervasive Surveillance, Total Exposure and the End of Privacy
By Greg Guma
August 16, 2013
More than a year before 9/11 a blue-ribbon congressional commission on terrorism released a series of recommendations that made civil libertarians cringe. To prevent possible terrorist attacks, said the panel (which included a former CIA director) restrictions on wiretapping should be loosened and surveillance of foreign students should be increased.
At the time, even the conservative Lincoln Legal Foundation labeled the cure “worse than the disease,” arguing that such threats didn’t warrant a suspension of constitutional rights. Most people barely noticed the dispute, however, and even if they had, it’s unlikely that many would have expressed concern about the implications of more wiretapping or spying on people accused of no crimes. The problem was terrorism, after all.
Since then, despite the American preoccupation with individual privacy, surveillance of everyday life has become so pervasive that it’s difficult to resist the mounting intrusions. Video cameras perch around banks, airports, hospitals, ATMs, stores, freeways, and building lobbies and elevators. The Transportation Security Agency recently announced that it will expand its own “stop and frisk” domain to cover trains, buses and concerts.
People often feel safer with cameras observing local streets and parking lots. There are complaints about Facebook’s collection of data, and some consumers do object to the collection of information on their shopping preferences by websites and stores. Still, most accept it as an acceptable and relatively harmless trade-off.
According to Bill Gates (who should know), computers will soon be able to inexpensively scan massive video records to find a particular person or activity. In his 1995 book, The Road Ahead, Gates already envisioned (but didn’t directly recommend) a camera on every streetlight. “What today seems like digital Big Brother might one day become the norm if the alternative is being left to the mercy of terrorists or criminals,” he wrote. Millions will choose to lead “a documented life,” Gates predicted, keeping an audio, written, or video record of their everyday activities.