The U.S. Surveillance State: Big Brother on Steroids



This Thursday, the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals will hear oral arguments in a case brought by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) against the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) use of body scanners. The case asserts “that the federal agency’s controversial program violates the Administrative Procedures Act, the Privacy Act, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the Video Voyeurism Prevention Act, and the Fourth Amendment.”

Depressingly, almost no one expects the case to succeed, in part because, as an ACLU spokesman explained, fourth amendment ruling precedents are almost all bad. And, indeed, the 1973 9th Circuit Court ruling in U.S. vs. Davis, said that “airport screenings are considered to be administrative searches” which are allowed so long as they are “no more intrusive or intensive than necessary, in light of current technology, to detect weapons or explosives, confined in good faith to that purpose, and passengers may avoid the search by electing not to fly.”

Emboldened by its success at completely disregarding all protests against body scanners (a/k/a “porn scanners“) so far, the DHS’s Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is now taking its show on the road—literally. TSA recently set up an invasive search at a Savannnah, GA train station, that included near-strip searches of a group of passengers who had just gotten off a train, but who were nevertheless ordered to go into the train station to be searched. TSA claimed that the passengers were searched because they had voluntarily entered the “secure area” of the train station, which they had not had to do (the baggage claim area was on the platform). Unfortunately for TSA, the group included a group of firefighters and policemen—whom it’s harder for TSA to call liers—who reported that the TSA agents had ordered them to go into the station.

The DHS is also now testing the roll-out of scanners and video cameras that could be tacked on to mobile vans that could scan city streets and intelligent tracking devices could be mounted on buildings and poles. This technology will not only allow them to x-ray your moving car at-will, but would be a part of a “covert inspection of moving subjects”—that’s “innocent people” to you and me—”to monitor pedestrian body and eye movement.”

Now, they are planning to purchase new portable, instant DNA scanners.

All of this neat new technology joins systems also being rolled out across the country that link almost all public and private surveillance cameras to a centralized, government surveillance center, neatly being tied into vast databases of unspecified “public records” at Real Time Crime Centers (RTCC). The unlikely terrorist hotspot of Ogden, Utah is the latest to join cities like Houston and New York, going above and beyond and adding a camera-equipped blimp to drift over the city to add the ability to peer into backyards at will.

Our friend and colleague Robert Higgs recently pointed out that even otherwise-serene rural areas are similarly under camera surveillance, as reported, for example here.

I was somewhat relieved when Google earth first started displaying eye-from-the sky views of backyards since our address brought up a house 2 doors down instead of ours, but it’s now accurate—and closer, revealing views into our all-glass house. And I was extremely mystified that Google was able to come up with the money to invest in all those aerial views, as well as street-by-street video of the entire country. Reports now coming out about Google’s “secret” relationship with the National Security Administration (NSA) reveal that Google’s “Street View” cars also gathered and passed along everyone’s home wireless IP information, so it is reasonable to infer that its other intelligence-gathering has been a joint venture with NSA as well. And if any kid with a laptop can see through the windows of our home over Google, one can only imagine the view classified technology provides.

Adding pinpoint precision to locating where you live, last year’s Census included the GPS-mapping of every front door for every address in the country—an assignment Census workers were trained to keep hidden from prying eyes.

Cell phones now provide the GPS location of their owners, allowing the government to know where we are even when not at home. This is more than a privacy concern for the women victimized by the technology’s use by abusive husbands and stalkers, as reported here.

In addition to liberally accessing cell phone GPS records, the government also has the ability to turn on your cell phone remotely, and use it as a listening device. Such use has been declared legal, so be aware.

Likewise, know that your laptop camera can be enabled as a spy device, and though I haven’t yet seen any accounts of such, likely your cell phone camera as well.

Government abuses of technology and data already in their possession makes the the current mild debate over the extension of the REAL-ID Act and its creation of a centralized national identification database—complete with biometric identifying information—seem a little late.

So, assuming courts keep ruling that all this intrusiveness is Constitutional, what are we to do?

Unfortunately, looking to the legislative branch for help won’t work. Tea Party patriots, who gained election claiming to want to restore government by the people, recently voted to extend expiring provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act, including those authorizing wireless wiretaps—and even voted against a proposed revision that would have specified that investigations of U.S. citizens under such extended authority “shall be conducted in a manner that complies with the Constitution of the United States,” including the Bill of Rights.

Aren’t these the same legislators who insisted on opening their session in Congress with a reading of the very Constitution they have now voted as conditional?

Call me old fashioned, but now that the government CAN intrude at will, perhaps we ought to have a conversation about what the government SHOULD be allowed to do. Neither the courts, legislature—nor certainly the executive—are going to uphold our rights. I guess we’re going to have to do it for ourselves.

If not now, when?

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