The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and
effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and
the persons or things to be seized.

– Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution


The word surveillance and its associated connections have appeared everywhere since the 9/11 bombings. The catalyst for my own exploration of this topic comes from a recent discussion I had with a person who expressed the point-of-view on surveillance that it's necessary and only minimally, if at all, affects the "average American".

She pointed to how video surveillance, for example, can increase our safety as citizens by deterring crime and pointed to the prosecution of terrorist responsible for the bus and subway bombings in London in 2005. I listened and said little. I have always had an aversion to surveillance. Almost like an intuition that it is wrong, dangerous and indicative of a society using technology as a means of political and social control. Intuition, however, helped me very little in responding to the person to whom I was listening defend surveillance as essentially a positive tool. With that in mind, I began by searching the internet for information about surveillance. I learned enough to be able to formulate a small argument against it. And since in my day-to-day dealings with people, I don't need or want to be any sort of scholar on this type of issue, I think for now it is enough of a base of knowledge to at least begin to take on the issue.

I first began by reading a few articles on video surveillance. One MSNBC article, which I will refer to again later in this piece, contained on a sidebar a video surveillance clip depicting a cold-blooded murder, due to which the suspect of said crime was promptly arrested and charged. Sounds good, right?

The article mentions a huge surge of and push for further video surveillance by police and city officials across the United States. Yet, no comprehensive national study has been done on the effectiveness of video surveillance as a deterrent to crime. Some folks are catching on, though:

Police officials in San Francisco, meanwhile, have delayed approving installation of new cameras pending a final study from researchers at the University of California, who said in a preliminary report this spring that the city’s 68 anti-crime cameras had failed to deter street crime. Where the cameras had any impact, the interim report said, they simply moved crime down the street or around the corner.

London's head of Metropolitan Police, had this comment quoted in the article:
Licata noted that he had supported the plan when it was introduced in May, but he said he changed his mind after Detective Chief Inspector Mick Neville, head of London’s Metropolitan Police, reported that the city’s network of near-ubiquitous public cameras had been “an utter fiasco.”

“Only 3 percent of crimes were solved by CCTV,” or closed-circuit television cameras, Neville said in an address to the Security Document World Conference last month. “There’s no fear of CCTV. “Why don’t people fear it?” he asked. “The cameras are not working.”

But is it just video surveillance and the "Big Brother is watching you" phenomenon the only thing we should be worried about?

No. Data and government surveillance are perhaps, in my opinion, the most dangerous. But as I learned from a position paper from the ACLU, it's the three in conjunction with one another, in a time of eroding regard for privacy and civil liberties, that makes the issue of surveillance such a formidable three-headed monster. The interplay of technology, law and politics has never in our history seen a situation so dangerous to our privacy and constitutional rights.

In the ACLU document Bigger Monster, Weaker Chains: The Growth of an American Surveillance Society, many aspects of surveillance were brought to light for me. Too many and too complex to be properly addressed here. It's a very compelling paper and I urge everyone to take the time to read its fifteen or so pages. I will attempt here to highlight some of the basics of what I was able to garner as tools for thinking about and discussing this issue.

Data surveillance is defined by the ACLU article thus: ... the collection of information about an identifiable individual,often from multiple sources, that can be assembled into a portrait of that person’s activities.

Thanks to the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act passed by Congress in 1999, financial institutions can sell personal financial information about us to private corporations. They're free to give out all financial information about you, including balances on accounts and financial activity associated with deposits and withdrawals. If it's any small comfort,the only thing your bank cannot sell is your account number.

Then there is the matter of medical and genetic information which can be shared about you to insurance companies and possibly even employers.

Cell phone location data is the type of surveillance that we've seen a lot about in the media recently, with the passage of the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 (FAA). Here it is, straight from the horses mouth.

Other types of data surveillance of interest are:
* Black boxes
* Biometrics (fingerprints, etc.)
* RFID Chips (used at tool booths)
*Implantable GPS chips (used in delivery boxes; can also be imbedded in the skin)

All of these types of data surveillance can crop up on powerful search engines when any type of security check is one on any individual. If you use your imagination, I'm sure you can form a picture of how this type of date could be used against you. Are you properly terrified yet?

Then there is the most dangerous head of the three-headed Surveillance Monster: government surveillance. We know about this and yet I, for one, have somehwat ignored it. There are literally thousands of government data bases with information about Americans in them:

*The FBI, of course
* The Registry of Motor Vehicles
* The Department of Education
* The Treasury Department

As a government, as a system, as a society, we now have all of the above surveillance capacity (and some I've not mentioned) and new ones in the cooker. Couple this with the passing of the Patriot Act and the monster is complete, with restrictions on its activities eroding at an alarming pace. Secret searches, wiretapping, power to demand records on individuals with little or no justified cause. What a field day for the heat, to quote an old Stevens Stills song.

The fact that we have the various technologies to create such extensive and multi-faceted surveillance strategies makes them neither sound, nor reliable. Society is yet again forging ahead with the implementation of strategies that are not well thoughtthrough to begin with and subsequently not studies to determine their effectiveness and potential for social and political malaise.

Further, we the people, are showing just how little we value our personal freedoms and rights under the constitution. The fact that in the U.S., our government has gotten away with so much erosion of core American principles, with very little effort, demonstrates how easy it will eventually be to abuse surveillance on a larger and large scale; affecting more and more people in the civilized world.

The threat of world domination through various methods of sophisticated, complex and inter-related surveillance mechanisms seems to become less science fiction and more reality daily. Corporations and government alike are watching us when it is they that need watching.


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