8. Big Brother Goes High-tech

by Project Censored
Published: Updated:

Sources: COVERTACTION QUARTERLY, Date: Spring 1996, Title: “Big Brother Goes High-Tech,” Author: David Banisar; INSIGHT, Date: August 19, 1996, Title: “Access, Privacy and Power,” Authors: Michael Rust and Susan Crabtree; INSIGHT, Date: September 9, 1996, Title: “New Surveillance Camera Cheers Police, Worries ACLU*,” Author: Joyce Price [*Reprint from Washington Times]

George Orwell’s prediction concerning government surveillance in his science fiction novel 1984 is rapidly
becoming reality in the “free world.” Information on individuals in the developed world can now be obtained by governments and corporations using new surveillance, identification, and networking technologies. These new technologies are rapidly facilitating the mass and routine surveillance of large segments of the population—without the need for warrants and formal investigations.

In Britain, nearly all public areas are monitored by over 150,000 closed-circuit television cameras (CCTV). Equipped with a powerful zoom lens, each camera can read the wording on a cigarette packet at 100 yards. These cameras can track individuals wherever they go—even into buildings. In the U.S., Baltimore announced plans to put 200 cameras in the city center. The FBI has also developed miniaturized CCTV units it can put in a “lamp, clock, radio, duffel bag, purse, picture frame, utility pole, coin telephone, and other [objects]” and then control remotely to “pan, tilt, zoom, and focus.”

Another type of surveillance camera currently in development boasts the equivalent of X-ray vision, and can penetrate clothing to “see” concealed weapons, plastic explosives, or drugs. Known as the passive millimeter wave imager, it can also see through walls and detect activity. And while neither is expected to be available until later in 1997, the manufacturer has been flooded with calls from law enforcement agencies around the globe. The camera has also prompted suggestions that it is in violation of the Fourth Amendment, which guarantees the right to be secure against unreasonable search and seizure.

Additionally, new biometric technologies which use sophisticated computer-scanning to measure personal characteristics including fingerprints, retinal patterns, and the geometry of the hand-are already being tested by U.S. immigration authorities at JFK, Newark, and Vancouver airports in place of passports.

Other emerging fields of surveillance include Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) which track the movements of all people using public or private transportation. Such systems are linked to ordinary bank accounts and can generate records that show a driver’s name and address, and the exact time and place where tolls have been charged. Nine states in the U.S. already use similar systems to track over 250,000 vehicles every day, and 12 more states will soon put their own systems online.

While technologically dazzling, such advances threaten to render privacy vulnerable on a scale never seen before-without providing accountability to protect us from those who may misuse it.

SSU Censored Researchers: Richard Henderson, Stacey Merrick

COMMENTS: Michael Rust, co-author of Insight’s article, “Access, Privacy, and Power,” says, “Cyberporn received far more attention than questions of who has access to someone else’s private information. Time and The Economist ran articles on [the privacy issue]; the Washington Post coverage dealt mainly with pending legislation. From what I could tell, The New York Times and network coverage was spotty.

“Because of income disparity, many people lack computer access; the cyber-revolution has left them bystanders,” says Rust. “As a result, many news consumers are somewhat glassy-eyed at computer coverage—even when it directly affects them.”

Rust believes limited media coverage of the privacy issue serves “Elements within the federal government who would like to hold a ‘master key’ to the personal files of citizens.”

Continued coverage of issues such as cyberporn, Rust says, “will lead to a more wide-ranging examination of privacy issues, but it’s a confusing subject, and press, lawmakers, and the public all share in the confusion.”