Too Much Surveillance Means Too Little Freedom
Tuesday, February 19, 2002
'Big Brother' in America
WASHINGTON Stipulated: The protection of the U.S. capital, its monuments
and its centers of authority is a vital national interest.
Early in American history, when faced with a potential rebellion of
unpaid officers, one U.S. leader employed an uncharacteristic emotional
trick - pretending to be going blind - to appeal to the infuriated
military not to march on the capital. He soon had them in tears and in
hand. In another time, another leader risked all by turning the
capital's defense over to the man most opposed to his political aims,
gambling that he could later overcome the nation's gratitude to a man on
horseback. In contemporary times, after the Pentagon was hit, the White
House targeted and the Capitol anthraxed, Washington again saw itself
besieged. But now, in terror of an external threat, U.S. leaders are
protecting the capital at the cost of every American's personal freedom.
Surveillance is in the saddle. Responding to the latest Justice
Department terror alert, Washington police opened the Joint Operation
Command Center of the Synchronized Operations Command Complex (SOCC). In
it, 50 officials monitor a wall of 40 video screens showing images of
travelers, drivers, residents and pedestrians.
These used to be the Great Unwatched, free people conducting their
private lives; now they are under close surveillance by hundreds of
hidden cameras. A zoom lens enables the watchers to focus on the face of
a tourist walking toward the Washington Monument or Lincoln Memorial.
The monitoring system is already linked to 200 cameras in public
schools. The watchers plan to expand soon into an equal number in the
subways and parks. A private firm profits by photographing cars running
red lights; those images will also join the surveillance network.
Private cameras in banks and the lobbies and elevators of apartment
buildings and hotels will join the system, and residents of nursing
homes and hospitals can look forward to an electronic eye in every room.
A commercial camera atop a department store in Georgetown catches the
faces of shoppers entering malls, to be plugged into omnipresent SOCC.
Digital images of the captured faces can be flashed around the world in
an instant on the Internet. Married to face- recognition technology and
tied in to public and private agencies around the world, an electronic
library of hundreds of millions of faces will be created. Terrorists and
criminals - as well as unhappy spouses, runaway teens, hermits and other
law-abiding people who want to drop out of society for a while - will
have no way to get a fresh start.
Is this the kind of world Americans want? The promise is greater safety;
the trade-off is government control of individual lives. Personal
security may or may not be enhanced by this all-seeing eye and ear, but
personal freedom will surely be sharply curtailed. To be watched at all
times, especially when doing nothing seriously wrong, is to be afflicted
with a creepy feeling. That is what is felt by a convict in an
always-lighted cell. It is the pervasive, inescapable feeling of being
unfree. As the law now stands, there is no privacy in public places;
that's why sports stadiums are called "Snooper Bowls." A whisper to your
spouse on your front porch is the public's business, say the courts; and
on that intrusive analogy, long-range microphones may soon be allowed to
pick up voice vibrations on windowpanes. When your government, employer,
landlord, merchant, banker and local sports team gang up to picture,
digitize and permanently record your every activity, you are placed
under unprecedented control. This is not some alarmist Orwellian
scenario; it is here, now, financed by $20 billion last year and $15
billion more this year of federal money appropriated out of sheer fear.
By creating the means to monitor 300 million visits to the United States
yearly, this administration and a supine opposition are building a
system capable of identifying, tracking and spying on 300 million
Americans. So far, the reaction has been a most un-American docility.
This Monday was Presidents' Day. To save the capital and thus the
nation, the leader who manipulated his rebellious officers with an
emotional pretense of incipient blindness was George Washington, and the
one who risked creating a Caesar out of a necessary general was Abraham
Lincoln. Neither would sacrifice America's freedom to protect his
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