All the Creepy Ways Big Brother Is Watching You

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John W. Whitehead, Founder, the Rutherford Institute

John W. White­head, Founder, the Ruther­ford Insti­tute

You had to live—did live, from habit that became instinct—in the assump­tion that every sound you made was over­heard, and, except in dark­ness, every move­ment scrutinized.”—George Orwell, 1984

None of us are per­fect. All of us bend the rules occa­sion­al­ly. Even before the age of over­crim­i­nal­iza­tion, when the most upstand­ing cit­i­zen could be count­ed on to break at least three laws a day with­out know­ing it, most of us have know­ing­ly flout­ed the law from time to time.

Indeed, there was a time when most Amer­i­cans thought noth­ing of dri­ving a few miles over the speed lim­it, paus­ing (rather than com­ing to a full stop) at a red light when mak­ing a right-hand turn if no one was around, jay­walk­ing across the street, and let­ting their kid play hook­ie from school once in a while. Of course, that was before the era of speed cam­eras that tick­et you for going even a mile over the post­ed lim­it, red light cam­eras that fine you for mak­ing safe “rolling stop” right-hand turns on red, sur­veil­lance cam­eras equipped with facial recog­ni­tion soft­ware mount­ed on street cor­ners, and school tru­an­cy laws that fine par­ents for “unex­cused” absences.

My, how times have changed.

Today, there’s lit­tle room for indis­cre­tions, imper­fec­tions, or acts of independence—especially not when the gov­ern­ment can lis­ten in on your phone calls, mon­i­tor your dri­ving habits, track your move­ments, scru­ti­nize your pur­chas­es and peer through the walls of your home. That’s because technology—specifically the tech­nol­o­gy employed by the gov­ern­ment against the Amer­i­can citizenry—has upped the stakes dra­mat­i­cal­ly so that there’s lit­tle we do that is not known by the gov­ern­ment.

In such an envi­ron­ment, you’re either a paragon of virtue, or you’re a crim­i­nal.

If you haven’t fig­ured it out yet, we’re all crim­i­nals. This is the creepy, cal­cu­lat­ing yet dia­bol­i­cal genius of the Amer­i­can police state: the very tech­nol­o­gy we hailed as rev­o­lu­tion­ary and lib­er­at­ing has become our prison, jail­er, pro­ba­tion offi­cer, Big Broth­er and Father Knows Best all rolled into one.

Con­sid­er that on any giv­en day, the aver­age Amer­i­can going about his dai­ly busi­ness will be mon­i­tored, sur­veilled, spied on and tracked in more than 20 dif­fer­ent ways, by both gov­ern­ment and cor­po­rate eyes and ears. A byprod­uct of this new age in which we live, whether you’re walk­ing through a store, dri­ving your car, check­ing email, or talk­ing to friends and fam­i­ly on the phone, you can be sure that some gov­ern­ment agency, whether the NSA or some oth­er enti­ty, is lis­ten­ing in and track­ing your behav­ior. As I point out in my book, A Gov­ern­ment of Wolves: The Emerg­ing Amer­i­can Police State, this doesn’t even begin to touch on the cor­po­rate track­ers that mon­i­tor your pur­chas­es, web brows­ing, Face­book posts and oth­er activ­i­ties tak­ing place in the cyber sphere.

For exam­ple, police have been using Stingray devices mount­ed on their cruis­ers to inter­cept cell phone calls and text mes­sages with­out court-issued search war­rants. Thwart­ing efforts to learn how and when these devices are being used against an unsus­pect­ing pop­u­lace, the FBI is insist­ing that any inquiries about the use of the tech­nol­o­gy be rout­ed to the agency “in order to allow suf­fi­cient time for the FBI to inter­vene to pro­tect the equipment/technology and infor­ma­tion from dis­clo­sure and poten­tial com­pro­mise.”

Doppler radar devices, which can detect human breath­ing and move­ment with­in in a home, are already being employed by the police to deliv­er arrest war­rants and are being chal­lenged in court. One case in par­tic­u­lar, Unit­ed States v Den­son, exam­ines how the Fourth Amend­ment inter­acts with the government’s use of radar tech­nol­o­gy to peer inside a suspect’s home. As Judge Neil Gor­such rec­og­nizes in the Tenth Cir­cuit Court of Appeal’s rul­ing in the case, “New tech­nolo­gies bring with them not only new oppor­tu­ni­ties for law enforce­ment to catch crim­i­nals but also new risks for abuse and new ways to invade con­sti­tu­tion­al rights.”

License plate read­ers, yet anoth­er law enforce­ment spy­ing device made pos­si­ble through fund­ing by the Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty, can record up to 1800 license plates per minute. How­ev­er, it seems these sur­veil­lance cam­eras can also pho­to­graph those inside a mov­ing car. Recent reports indi­cate that the Drug Enforce­ment Admin­is­tra­tion has been using the cam­eras in con­junc­tion with facial recog­ni­tion soft­ware to build a “vehi­cle sur­veil­lance data­base” of the nation’s cars, dri­vers and pas­sen­gers.

Side­walk and “pub­lic space” cam­eras, sold to gullible com­mu­ni­ties as a sure-fire means of fight­ing crime, is yet anoth­er DHS pro­gram that is blan­ket­ing small and large towns alike with gov­ern­ment-fund­ed and mon­i­tored sur­veil­lance cam­eras. It’s all part of a pub­lic-pri­vate part­ner­ship that gives gov­ern­ment offi­cials access to all man­ner of sur­veil­lance cam­eras, on side­walks, on build­ings, on bus­es, even those installed on pri­vate prop­er­ty.

Cou­ple these sur­veil­lance cam­eras with facial recog­ni­tion and behav­ior-sens­ing tech­nol­o­gy and you have the mak­ings of “pre-crime” cam­eras, which scan your man­ner­isms, com­pare you to pre-set para­me­ters for “nor­mal” behav­ior, and alert the police if you trig­ger any com­put­er­ized alarms as being “sus­pi­cious.”

Cap­i­tal­iz­ing on a series of noto­ri­ous abduc­tions of col­lege-aged stu­dents, sev­er­al states are push­ing to expand their bio­met­ric and DNA data­bas­es by requir­ing that any­one accused of a mis­de­meanor have their DNA col­lect­ed and cat­a­logued. How­ev­er, tech­nol­o­gy is already avail­able that allows the gov­ern­ment to col­lect bio­met­rics such as fin­ger­prints from a dis­tance, with­out a person’s coop­er­a­tion or knowl­edge. One sys­tem can actu­al­ly scan and iden­ti­fy a fin­ger­print from near­ly 20 feet away.

Radar guns have long been the speed cop’s best friend, allow­ing him to hide out by the side of the road, iden­ti­fy speed­ing cars, and then radio ahead to a police car, which does the dirty work of pulling the dri­ver over and issu­ing a tick­et. Nev­er mind that what this cop is real­ly doing is using an elec­tron­ic device to search your car with­out a search war­rant, vio­lat­ing the Fourth Amend­ment and prob­a­ble cause. Yet because it’s a cash cow for police and the gov­ern­ments they report to, it’s a prac­tice that is not only allowed but encour­aged. Indeed, devel­op­ers are hard at work on a radar gun that can actu­al­ly show if you or some­one in your car is tex­ting. No word yet on whether the tech­nol­o­gy will also be able to detect the con­tents of that text mes­sage.

It’s a sure bet that any­thing the gov­ern­ment wel­comes (and funds) too enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly is bound to be a Tro­jan horse full of nasty sur­pris­es. Case in point: police body cam­eras. Hailed as the easy fix solu­tion to police abus­es, these body cameras—made pos­si­ble by fund­ing from the Depart­ment of Jus­tice—will turn police offi­cers into rov­ing sur­veil­lance cam­eras. Of course, if you try to request access to that footage, you’ll find your­self being led a mer­ry and cost­ly chase through miles of red tape, bureau­crat­ic foot­men and unhelp­ful courts.

The “inter­net of things” refers to the grow­ing num­ber of “smart” appli­ances and elec­tron­ic devices now con­nect­ed to the inter­net and capa­ble of inter­act­ing with each oth­er and being con­trolled remote­ly. These range from ther­mostats and cof­fee mak­ers to cars and TVs. Of course, there’s a price to pay for such easy con­trol and access. That price amounts to relin­quish­ing ulti­mate con­trol of and access to your home to the gov­ern­ment and its cor­po­rate part­ners. For exam­ple, while Samsung’s Smart TVs are capa­ble of “lis­ten­ing” to what you say, there­by allow users to con­trol the TV using voice com­mands, it also records every­thing you say and relays it to a third par­ty.

Then again, the gov­ern­ment doesn’t real­ly need to spy on you using your smart TV when the FBI can remote­ly acti­vate the micro­phone on your cell­phone and record your con­ver­sa­tions. The FBI can also do the same thing to lap­top com­put­ers with­out the own­er know­ing any bet­ter.

Gov­ern­ment sur­veil­lance of social media such as Twit­ter and Face­book is on the rise. Amer­i­cans have become so accus­tomed to the gov­ern­ment over­step­ping its lim­its that most don’t even seem all that both­ered any­more about the fact that the gov­ern­ment is spy­ing on our emails and lis­ten­ing in on our phone calls.

Drones, which will begin to take to the skies en masse this year, will be the con­verg­ing point for all of the weapons and tech­nol­o­gy already avail­able to law enforce­ment agen­cies. This means drones that can lis­ten in on your phone calls, see through the walls of your home, scan your bio­met­rics, pho­to­graph you and track your move­ments, and even cor­ral you with sophis­ti­cat­ed weapon­ry.

And then there’s the Inter­net and cell phone kill switch, which enables the gov­ern­ment to shut down Inter­net and cell phone com­mu­ni­ca­tions with­out Amer­i­cans being giv­en any warn­ing. It’s a prac­tice that has been used before in the U.S., albeit in a lim­it­ed fash­ion. In 2005, cell ser­vice was dis­abled in four major New York tun­nels (report­ed­ly to avert poten­tial bomb det­o­na­tions via cell phone). In 2009, those attend­ing Pres­i­dent Obama’s inau­gu­ra­tion had their cell sig­nals blocked (again, same ratio­nale). And in 2011, San Fran­cis­co com­muters had their cell phone sig­nals shut down (this time, to thwart any pos­si­ble protests over a police shoot­ing of a home­less man).

It’s a giv­en that the government’s tac­tics are always more advanced than we know, so there’s no know­ing what new tech­nolo­gies are already being deployed against with­out our knowl­edge. Cer­tain­ly, by the time we learn about a par­tic­u­lar method of sur­veil­lance or new tech­no­log­i­cal gad­get, it’s a sure bet that the gov­ern­ment has been using it covert­ly for years already. And if oth­er gov­ern­ments are using a par­tic­u­lar tech­nol­o­gy, you can bet that our gov­ern­ment used it first. For instance, back in 2011, it was report­ed that the gov­ern­ment of Tunisia was not only mon­i­tor­ing the emails of its cit­i­zens but was actu­al­ly alter­ing the con­tents of those emails in order to thwart dis­si­dents. How much do you want to bet that gov­ern­ment agents have already employed such tac­tics in the U.S.?

Apart from the obvi­ous dan­gers posed by a gov­ern­ment that feels jus­ti­fied and empow­ered to spy on its peo­ple and use its ever-expand­ing arse­nal of weapons and tech­nol­o­gy to mon­i­tor and con­trol them, we’re approach­ing a time in which we will be forced to choose between obey­ing the dic­tates of the government—i.e., the law, or what­ev­er a gov­ern­ment offi­cials deems the law to be—and main­tain­ing our indi­vid­u­al­i­ty, integri­ty and inde­pen­dence.

When peo­ple talk about pri­va­cy, they mis­tak­en­ly assume it pro­tects only that which is hid­den behind a wall or under one’s cloth­ing. The courts have fos­tered this mis­un­der­stand­ing with their con­stant­ly shift­ing delin­eation of what con­sti­tutes an “expec­ta­tion of pri­va­cy.” And tech­nol­o­gy has fur­thered mud­died the waters.

How­ev­er, pri­va­cy is so much more than what you do or say behind locked doors. It is a way of liv­ing one’s life firm in the belief that you are the mas­ter of your life, and bar­ring any imme­di­ate dan­ger to anoth­er per­son (which is far dif­fer­ent from the care­ful­ly craft­ed threats to nation­al secu­ri­ty the gov­ern­ment uses to jus­ti­fy its actions), it’s no one’s busi­ness what you read, what you say, where you go, whom you spend your time with, and how you spend your mon­ey.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, pri­va­cy as we once knew it is dead.

We now find our­selves in the unen­vi­able posi­tion of being mon­i­tored, man­aged and con­trolled by our tech­nol­o­gy, which answers not to us but to our gov­ern­ment and cor­po­rate rulers. This is the fact-is-stranger-than-fic­tion les­son that is being pound­ed into us on a dai­ly basis.

Thus, to be an indi­vid­ual today, to not con­form, to have even a shred of pri­va­cy, and to live beyond the reach of the government’s roam­ing eyes and tech­no­log­i­cal spies, one must not only be a rebel but rebel.

Even when you rebel and take your stand, there is rarely a hap­py end­ing await­ing you. You are ren­dered an out­law. This is the mes­sage in almost every dystopi­an work of fic­tion, from clas­sic writ­ers such as George Orwell, Aldous Hux­ley, Philip K. Dick and Ray Brad­bury to more con­tem­po­rary voic­es such as Mar­garet Atwood, Lois Lowry and Suzanne Collins.

How do you sur­vive in the Amer­i­can police state?

We’re run­ning out of options. As Philip K. Dick, the vision­ary who gave us Minor­i­ty Report and Blade Run­ner, advised:

If, as it seems, we are in the process of becom­ing a total­i­tar­i­an soci­ety in which the state appa­ra­tus is all-pow­er­ful, the ethics most impor­tant for the sur­vival of the true, free, human indi­vid­ual would be: cheat, lie, evade, fake it, be else­where, forge doc­u­ments, build improved elec­tron­ic gad­gets in your garage that’ll out­wit the gad­gets used by the author­i­ties.