There’s a monster on the loose
It’s got our heads in a noose
And it just sits there—watching.
—Steppenwolf (the rock group)
Big Brother is watching you; he’s also listening, sniffing, recording, and analyzing. His private little brothers—everyone from major corporations to your doctor and your local grocer—are also snooping on you nonstop.
At this point in the development of technology, you should assume government agencies at all levels are recording everything you do electronically, and much that you do that’s not electronic, such as walking across the street. There are two reasons this has happened. The first is the decline in the government’s respect for the Bill of Rights, especially since September 11. The second is Moore’s Law, which posits that computing power doubles every 18 months. Government and private databases that hold all the information about you have become so cheap that they’re a minor budget item. Camera powers are increasing at a similar pace, allowing them to be as unobtrusive yet intrusive as something Q invented for James Bond back in the 1960’s.
But before I crank into more bad news, let me bring up a little good news. The government operates like a gigantic, incompetent bureaucracy because that’s what it is. It might accidentally ensnare you in false accusations. More likely, the functionaries don’t care about you. Their function is the usual bureaucratic one: badly perform an assignment (collect data) and cover themselves.
The failures are obvious. The government allowed traitors Jonathan Pollard, Aldrich Ames, Robert Hanssen, and others to pilfer national-security documents even in the era when that meant carrying bulky documents out of government buildings. Nowadays, as WikiLeaks and other scandals show, the government is a giant sieve.
A comic element comes in with the scandal of Army Gen. David Petraeus, the disgraced CIA chief. The adulterous officer received a fine martial education from the U.S. Military Academy, the U.S. Command and General Staff College, and Princeton University. His gal pal and biographer, the aptly named Paula Broadwell, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, also attended West Point, as well as the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
Yet Petraeus and Broadwell were so dumb they exchanged open emails in a shared Gmail account, “allowing them to see one anothers’ messages while leaving a much fainter data trail,” the AP reported. The FBI figured this out almost as fast as your neighbor’s 14-year-old son could have.
Which shows that the major hazard of the New Omni-Information Order is to government officials themselves. Tim Weiner, who has written books on both the CIA and the FBI, said the tabloid fodder was part of the spy agencies’ long-standing rivalry. “The scandal is that one FBI agent took the raw reporting in this investigation and delivered it without authorization to a member of Congress,” he told CNN. “That is not how the game is played. That is dirty pool.”
An example from the early days of databases involved the late Robert Bork during his 1987 U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings. According to the 2008 book Library Ethics, by Jean L. Peter, the City Paper, an “alternative” (i.e., predictably left-wing) D.C. weekly, “inquired about Bork’s video transactions at Erol’s,” a local video store, “where the clerk willingly provided the information and made a copy for [reporter Michael] Dolan to use.”
Dolan later claimed that, while waiting to read the list, he “stewed in a sudden outbreak of conscience” that the list might contain titles of a nature I won’t repeat. But wasn’t that the point all along? It turned out Bork’s rented titles included nothing racier than A Day at the Races and The Man Who Knew Too Much. The pilfering led to the Video Privacy Protection Act of 2008, which prohibited the release of such lists by private parties without the patron’s approval.
Another comic element will be reading the Facebook, Twitter, and other online comments of our future politicians. Major candidates must by nature be highly verbal. And unless they were homeschooled in a home with no internet, they will likely have left thousands of comments on many subjects. By the time a politician has the power to erase damning electronic traces, too many copies already will have been made of them by friends and foes.
Imagine what Bill Clinton might have tweeted during his 1969 “vacation” in Moscow. Not to engage in Birther conspiracy theories, but what might Barry Soetoro have posted on Facebook back in 1971 when he attended State Elementary School Menteng 01 in Jakarta? And just to be bipartisan, what pictures might George W. Bush have put up on Instagram the day before he went off the sauce on his 40th birthday?
A little imaginary schadenfreude about our masters aside, what everyone on earth now faces is an Orwellian nightmare of perpetual surveillance. “Top U.S. intelligence officials gathered in the White House Situation Room in March to debate a controversial proposal,” the December 13 Wall Street Journal reported.
Counterterrorism officials wanted to create a government dragnet, sweeping up millions of records about U.S. citizens—even people suspected of no crime.
Not everybody was on board. “This is a sea change in the way that the government interacts with the general public,” Mary Ellen Callahan, chief privacy officer of the Department of Homeland Security, argued in the meeting.
Her objections were sent down the Memory Hole. A week later, Attorney General Eric Holder “signed the changes into effect.”
During the 2008 election, I read President Obama’s second book, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream. He attacked President George W. Bush’s judicial nominees for showing “a pattern of hostility toward civil rights, privacy, and checks on executive power.” In office, he and Holder have vastly increased government invasions of privacy and executive power beyond even the stratospheric levels to which Bush had elevated them.
In October, the Journal reported that local police now routinely take pictures from cameras mounted on squad cars. Computers read the license-plate numbers of passing cars, much as your iPhone scans a document and files it by topic. The police take images of you and your family. No warrant is needed because you were driving on public roads, or parked in public shopping centers.
Speaking on a WNYC radio show about the article she cowrote, WSJ reporter Julia Angwin said the police excuse for keeping the files is “to investigate crime better.” She said the federal government has funded many of the cameras, including with a $50 million grant from the Department of Homeland Security. This is how your once-friendly local police that you controlled through your city council have been transformed into subdivisions of the central government, answerable mainly to federal bureaucrats foisted on us by “compassionate conservative” George W. Bush.
Heimat—excuse me, Homeland—Security grants of the taxpayers’ money go not just to major cities, according to Angwin. Grants also go to Crisp County, Georgia, population 23,000; and to San Leandro, California, population 85,000. In most jurisdictions, any officer can access the databases for any reason. A policeman could check on a young woman he encounters. Angwin said governments in the United States now collect more data on each American than the Stasi secret police kept on East Germans.
Then there is the routine data collected with your permission. Your iPhone or equivalent Android device tracks where you go and whom you call. Your grocery-store discount card compiles data to alert you to deals you can’t pass up. It also tracks your frequent purchase of 1.75 liter jugs of Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7, which could be subpoenaed by a court of law in a custody battle to prove you’re a drunk.
Any time you use your credit card, that data is recorded for the benefit of numerous companies. A good credit rating means you’ll get inundated with credit-card offers in the snail mail, keeping alive the moribund U.S. Postal Service, which has lost most of its first-class business to e-mail and online checking.
Do you enjoy posting pictures of your grandkids on Facebook? “Facebook and other social platforms are watching users’ chats for criminal activity and notifying police if any suspicious behavior is detected,” Mashable.com reports. “The screening process begins with scanning software that monitors chats for words or phrases that signal something might be amiss, such as an exchange of personal information or vulgar language.”
This reminds me of the science of “phonoscopy” in The First Circle, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novel about zeks (prisoners) in a sharashka (Gulag prison for scientific inmates) in 1950. Phonoscopy utilized voice recordings and printouts of sound waves to identify suspects. Of five suspects, phonoscopy clears three, but can’t distinguish between the real suspect and an innocent man. Under Stalinism, both are arrested. Of course, that couldn’t happen here because we have better technology.
Even if you throw your iPhone away, tear yourself away from your computer, and sell your car, you won’t be safe. “Government officials are quietly installing sophisticated audio surveillance systems on public buses across the country to eavesdrop on passengers, according to documents obtained by The Daily,” the online newspaper reported last December. “Plans to implement the technology are under way in cities from San Francisco to Hartford, Conn., and Eugene, Ore., to Columbus, Ohio.”
So, how do we get out from under this Benthamite panopticon? We could restore the Bill of Rights and the rest of the Constitution. That would mean getting rid of all our duplicative “defense” and “security” departments: the Department of Homeland Security, the National Security Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Transportation Security Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the security elements of the State Department, etc.
The Department of “Defense” should be broken up into its constituent elements, which existed before the centralizing National Security Act of 1947: the better-named War Department (the Army with the Air Force folded back into it) and the Navy Department (including the Marines). Before the 1947 Act, which also created the CIA, we won all our wars. Since then, our military has defeated only tiny Grenada and Panama.
The War and Navy Departments would adopt Fourth Generation Warfare tactics, as outlined by William Lind and others, a prime plank of which is not stirring up trouble abroad. And their snooping would be limited to military targets.
State and local government likewise would be limited to snooping only with a warrant derived from the old rules under the Bill of Rights, not from the unlimited expansion of government power under Obama-Holder.
None of this seems likely to happen until the federal government goes broke.
In the meantime, there are things you can do, on two levels, which we can call the Amish Plan and the Prevention Plan. The Amish Plan means getting rid of all your technology, or as much of it as you can. Your kids, especially, will hate it, but they will be better off without perpetual tweeting and Facebooking, not to mention the demonic recesses of the World Wide Web.
The Prevention Plan means using the technology, but reducing your exposure. Most of us are already roped into the major corporate tech companies. I write and edit for a living, and practically live in Google and Gmail. I should reconsider. Others are plugged into Apple’s equivalent systems, or those of Microsoft.
“These vendors are becoming our feudal lords, and we are becoming their vassals,” warns computer security expert Bruce Schneier. “We might refuse to pledge allegiance to all of them—or to a particular one we don’t like. Or we can spread our allegiance around. But either way, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to not pledge allegiance to at least one of them.”
He says there are advantages to this:
Classical medieval feudalism depended on overlapping, complex, hierarchical relationships. There were oaths and obligations: a series of rights and privileges. A critical aspect of this system was protection: vassals would pledge their allegiance to a lord, and in return, that lord would protect them from harm.
It is an odd feudal system that would propose to grant us so much freedom. And I would add that the original feudal system, whatever its defects, was checked by Christian morals. Whereas, to take one example, Bill Gates is an atheist dedicated to promoting abortion and population reduction.
One way around the secular feudal lords is anonymous web surfing through such sites as the Tor Project (TorProject.org). In case you didn’t know, your internet addresses is a 12-digit Internet Protocol number that can be recorded. For example, if you visit a site favoring secession, you’ll end up in a database somewhere that could identify you as a potential enemy of the federal government.
Tor routes your IP address around to various other sites, making the address anonymous, and encrypts the data you read. Then again, it’s funded by $2 million in federal money. So you have to wonder how anonymous it is. And European governments are attacking Tor because it’s sometimes used to distribute child pornography.
Probably the best privacy strategy is minimizing what you use, but not to a fanatical degree. Like me, most Chronicles readers likely already have a large “digital footprint” of major criticisms of government policy. I don’t think there’s much threat of us being sent to FEMA camps. But if it does happen, as in Solzhenitsyn’s novels, we’ll be incarcerated with the interesting “politicals.”
Never underestimate the incompetence of bureaucrats at all levels of government. Even with sophisticated search algorithms, governments now amass so much data on us that, for most of us—even “politicals”—it’s effectively useless, like a stick of dynamite without a detonator. Unless you run for a major political office, nobody is likely to care.
In the 1974 Francis Ford Coppola movie The Conversation, Gene Hackman plays Harry Caul, a man paranoid about privacy, even as his job is to bug other people’s homes and businesses. In the movie’s final scene, he rips apart his home, searching for listening devices under the floor and in the walls.
In the end, Caul isn’t sure he got all the bugs—but he plays his saxophone.