"There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment"— George Orwell, 1984.
Maybe it’s cliché to quote Orwell when writing about privacy. Another phrase that’s become almost humorous in its overuse of late is "the terrorists will have won," — as in a man saying to a woman in a bar, "if you don’t give me your phone number, the terrorists will have won."
But with Americans giving up privacy by the fistful these days, it’s hard not to slip into the trite. Banal as it may sound, Big Brother is watching. And if we don’t start getting more vigilant about protecting our liberty, the terrorists will have won.
Washington, D.C., has just invested $7 million in a massive citywide surveillance system. Images from 200 cameras will be observed from a command post monitoring city streets, Metro stations, monuments, federal buildings and schools. There are plans to implement private security cameras into the system too, as well as parking garages, ATMs, and traffic cameras.
There’s also talk of incorporating facial recognition technology (similar to what was used at last year’s Super Bowl in Tampa Bay), biometrics, and even financial and medical databases into the system. Stephen J. Gaffigan, head of the project, told the Washington Post, "I don’t think there’s really any limit on the feeds it can take. We’re trying to build ... the capability to tap into not only video, but databases and systems across the region."
With satellites now capable of reading printed pages from the skies, security cameras able to zoom in on bathroom stalls and dressing rooms, and municipalities partnering with private firms to issue traffic tickets in which the firms are paid a commission for every ticket issued, the potential for abuse abounds in what’s fast becoming our voyeur society.
With digital recording, images can be saved and stored in databases forever. Everyone who’s ever visited an airport, bank, or hospital, or who owns an ATM card or driver’s license, could very well end up with his face and his vitals in a sellable, marketable database CD-ROM. As cities and states continue to contract out monitoring services to private firms, the potential for database mixing grows. And as databases are mixed and sold, the potential for such information to fall into the hands of divorce lawyers, private investigators and voyeuristic Web site operators creeps ever higher. Abusive husbands could hunt down runaway wives. Stalkers could better track their prey.
For a number of years now, the United Kingdom has had in place the type of surveillance system to which Washington aspires. Over 15,000 cameras dot the London subway and financial district. Three of every four localities in Britain now use crime-monitoring systems.
According to the same Post article cited above, footage from some of those cameras found its way onto Internet porn sites, as well as a 1996 videotape called Caught in the Act, which depicted couples in sex acts, women undressing in their bedrooms and, yes, an "upskirt" shot of Princess Diana. The tape sold 80,000 copies.
Britain is also looking into a system that would equip every car sold in the country with a serialized GPS number, enabling it to be monitored and tracked by satellites. In Norway, tickets for traffic violations are tied to income levels. Cops access financial records from cell phones and issue fines that are proportional to net worth.
Last month, in response to calls for a national ID card, Boise State economics professor Charlotte Twight wrote an op-ed for the Cato Institute entitled "Why Not Implant a Microchip?" The title was facetious. Twight was exaggerating for rhetorical effect. Of course no one would seriously propose implanting a microchip in human beings, right?
Not long after, the AP ran this story, under the headline, "US to Weigh Computer Chip Implant."
When it comes to our winnowing privacy, satire can barely keep pace with reality.
In the wake of Sept. 11, Americans have become alarmingly indifferent to protecting personal freedoms. A recent Zogby polls shows that 79 percent of Americans approve of video monitoring in public places. The Washington, D.C., plan was met with only minimal resistance, from only the most vocal of civil libertarians. And, as Twight points out, supporters of national ID cards outweigh detractors.
We seem to think that there must be a tradeoff — security for privacy. But that’s not the case. In spite of all the cameras in Britain, crime has dropped only negligibly in the last five years, and gun violence has actually increased. Traffic cameras may cut red light running, but studies show that less invasive strategies – such as lengthening yellows at intersections — effect the same or better results. And there’s no real evidence that turning Washington into a surveillance society will prevent another terrorist attack.
By definition, "terrorists" seek to inculcate in us a fear for our safety so jarring that we alter our way of life — we live in "terror." Privacy, anonymity and freedom of movement are fundamental principles of the American way of life. We are, after all, a nation originally founded and populated by people thirsty for a fresh start, a new beginning. If those principals are jeopardized, so too is our victory over terrorism.
We’ve become too ready to sacrifice privacy and liberty for safety and security.
It’s trite, but it’s true: Big Brother is watching. And the terrorists are winning.
Radley Balko is a writer living in Arlington, Va., and publisher of The Agitator.com.