Column: Government's watchful eye should be restrained
April 30. 2013 1:44PM
‘It was terribly dangerous to let your thoughts wander when you were in any public place or within range of a telescreen. The smallest thing could give you away. A nervous tic, an unconscious look of anxiety, a habit of muttering to yourself — anything that carried with it the suggestion of abnormality, of having something to hide. In any case, to wear an improper expression on your face (to look incredulous when a victory was announced, for example) was itself a punishable offense. There was even a word for it in Newspeak: facecrime, it was called."
— George Orwell, 1984.
I begin with this disturbing snippet from Orwell because it is the flip side of the relief we all feel that a department store security camera caught the Tsarnaev brothers apparently planting bombs at the Boston Marathon. Without those images of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev not reacting to the first explosion and other incriminating details, the case could have taken weeks to solve, if ever.
But I worry — as the use of the Orwell quote suggests — that our surveillance society is moving ahead without thoughtful taps on the brakes. Threats like Boston cloud our judgment. We lose perspective on the downside risks of technologies that put us in a fishbowl.
"We need more cameras" was the predictable response by Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., a member of the House Homeland Security and Intelligence committees, to the bombings. He told MSNBC that cameras are "a great law enforcement method and device" and should not be objectionable because in the street you have no "expectation of privacy."
King is wrong on privacy and I’ll address why later.
It comes as no surprise that politicians choose more surveillance over concerns that government is accruing too much spying power — or the conformist society it creates.
Still, a watched people is a repressed people. Who would want police cameras trained on their home 24/7? (Yes, Google Earth exists, but it is not the government.) An all-seeing government is disquieting, not comforting.
We need to grapple with, and more important, put reasonable limits on, government use of surveillance technology as it gets continuously cheaper and better. We could be only a few short years away from camera systems equipped with facial recognition software that can identify anyone who comes into view. Drivers, too, could be identified and tracked. It has already happened to license plates — spawning a whole annoying industry of red-light and speeding cameras.
Now add the ability to cheaply store mountains of data and the government may soon possess a ready archive of people’s whereabouts that is instantly searchable. Join a public protest in your 20s and the government knows about it forever.
That’s why Congressman King’s claim that privacy is not harmed by more cameras is no longer valid. Maybe cameras were once like police patrols, observing what takes place in public where people have no expectation of privacy. Now, though, cameras equate to tens of thousands of round-the-clock police patrols, each with hawk-like vision and perfect memory. At some point the sheer volume of watchfulness and data collection violates privacy rights, even if the law has yet to catch up.
The U.S. Supreme Court will have to confront this. Last year, in a case holding that police cannot physically attach a GPS tracking device to a suspect’s car without a warrant, Justice Samuel Alito made an essential point in a separate opinion.
He wrote that longer-term GPS monitoring impinges on society’s expectation of privacy because we have always thought that police "would not — and indeed, in the main, simply could not — secretly monitor and catalogue every single movement of an individual’s car for a very long period."
Now we know that they would and could and at very little cost. It is little wonder that when the case was argued before the justices, Orwell’s Big Brother from 1984 was referenced six times.