You will never be alone
Almost every move you make is being watched - and privacy is fast becoming obsolete, writes Gerard Wright.
If Hollywood and its movies are America thinking aloud, then a very interesting thought bubble has just appeared over the map of the United States.
The bubble appears, naturally, in the form of a film, Look, which opened in US cinemas this month. It weaves a range of stories with entwining themes of sex, blackmail, crime and alienation, with a twist: every scene of the film is shot from the perspective of a surveillance camera, from the bubble lens above an ATM, to the elevated perspective of the security cameras that are ubiquitous and sometimes invisible, across the US.
As entertainment, the jury will return a verdict by the end of the year. As a statement of the American and world zeitgeist, Look is impeccable in its timing.
The US, like Australia and Britain, has taken fear as a guiding principle, and used it to introduce or justify wide-ranging security and surveillance programs as a means of preventing terrorist attacks such as those in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, in Bali in October 2002, and London in July 2005.
In the US the focus has been on preventing another attack, and protecting the "homeland". It was the justification for the invasion of Iraq, and for the process known as "data-mining" where tens of millions of phone call records are scoured, and billions of calls and emails are monitored.
On a localised level, there is what Yvonne Cager, a video surveillance marketing manager at Texas Instruments, called the "drive to have more eyes everywhere". An IBM report last year estimated there were 26 million surveillance cameras in the US, while the iSuppli research company forecasts that international sales of surveillance systems will more than double to 66 million units by 2011.
One of these cameras caught Look's director, Adam Rifkin, singing along to a song in his car as he passed through an intersection, triggering a red light camera. The image Rifkin saw with the fine that arrived in the mail a week or so later was astonishingly sharp and unflattering.
"I felt violated," he says, but also inspired. Rifkin began looking for surveillance cameras, and the laws that govern their use. The cameras were everywhere and saw everyone. By Rifkin's assessment, the average American could expect to be filmed 200 times a day. The laws governing that coverage were surprisingly lax.
"In 37 states it's legal for hidden cameras to be in dressing rooms and bathrooms," Rifkin says. "I wanted to throw a bucket of cold water onto the public's obliviousness about these cameras."
Other experts state the case even more baldly, among them Donald Kerr, the principal deputy director of US National Intelligence, who believes that privacy and anonymity can no longer be regarded as synonymous.
"Protecting anonymity isn't a fight that can be won," Kerr told an intelligence conference in Texas in October. "Anyone that's typed in their name on Google understands that."
The premise of Look is to provide a public viewing through surveillance cameras of what is supposed to be nominally private. Britain is already dealing with the loss and potential exposure last month of what was supposed to be absolutely confidential - the private information, and in some cases, banking details, of 25 million Britons on two encrypted compact discs. The inability to protect this information - ironically, to keep it private - is now being used as the strongest argument against the country's long-proposed national identity card.
But this was a problem with simple record-keeping. In the US, the issue of privacy cuts even deeper into everyday life: who is called or emailed, and what is said. In December 2005 The New York Times ran a front-page story exposing the warrantless wire-tapping operation authorised by the President, George Bush. Under the program, phone calls and emails to or from the US involving anyone the Government suspected of having terrorist ties were monitored.
This set off a furious argument about the President's powers, and the extent to which he could circumvent the US constitution, with its guaranteed right to privacy, and protection of citizens against "unreasonable searches and seizures", in time of war, and without consulting Congress.
Since then a former computer technician with the telecommunications giant AT&T has told how the company co-operated with the Government in illegally diverting internet traffic through its San Francisco operations centre to a virtual listening post operated by the National Security Agency. This not only included AT&T, but also regional phone and internet services such as Qwest.
Qwest's former chief executive, Joe Nacchio, says the company refused the agency permission to tap into its data lines in 2001, before the September 11 attacks. As a consequence, Nacchio says, the company was locked out of lucrative government contracts.
But Mark Klein, the AT&T technician who stumbled upon the San Francisco operation, says Qwest's refusal to co-operate was rendered at least partly irrelevant by the scope of the agency's reach. This not only included AT&T internet traffic, but also web data from any other network with which any AT&T customer communicated.
"They were basically sweeping up, vacuum-cleaning, the internet through all the data, sweeping it all into this secret room," Klein told the current affairs program Frontline.
"Your daily transactions on the internet can be monitored with this kind of system, not just your web surfing. All kinds of business that people do on the internet these days - your bank transactions, your email, everything - it sort of opens a window into your entire private life, and that's why I thought of the term 'Orwellian'."
Six months later AT&T and another phone company, Verizon, were revealed to have turned over phone records with billions of names and numbers to the Government, which denied any breach of individual privacy.
"Our efforts were focused on al-Qaeda and its known affiliates," Bush said. This balancing act between intrusion and protection has become the focus of intense philosophical and legal debate, and not only because of presumed, but not formally adjudicated, protections within the 220-year-old US constitution, governing communications over fibre-optic lines and via satellite and mobile-phone towers.
In fact, the latter has found service as a form of homing device by police. Judges are now being asked for - and mostly approving - warrants that allow police agencies such as the FBI to target mobile phones as both location and even listening devices, using technology that is now standard in most phones. But it is national security where the stakes are highest. Larry Mefford, the FBI's former assistant director of counter-terrorism, describes it as "the debate of the 21st century".
"How much security do you want, and how many rights do you want to give up?" he asks. "I can give you more security, but I've got to take away some rights. And so there's a balance." This was recognised, too, by John Ashcroft, the former US attorney-general. "I think there is an elevated demand or aspiration for privacy, and I think there is a need for being able to use information," he told Frontline.
"People actually want to be anonymous; they want to be able to do things in public that no one remembers. [But] there is also this need to have information that can prevent massive calamity and tragedy. They're a little bit like rivers of aspiration that are on a collision course, and how, at the confluence of those, we accommodate those two demands is a very serious challenge."
The program noted that the US Government Accounting Office has identified 200 other government data-mining operations.
In his interview, Ashcroft explained his new job description from Bush, after the September 11 attacks: "Don't let this happen again."This changed the focus of agencies like the FBI from investigation to prevention.
"When you talk about prevention," says Michael Woods, a former FBI lawyer, "you're saying to people, well, you can't just focus on one person. You have to cast the net a bit more broadly, and you have to start to work with situations where you are going to collect a lot of data and then try to connect the dots.
"That means you're going to end up holding a lot of data about ordinary people who have nothing to do with your threat."The irony of this situation is that even as involuntary and unauthorised government surveillance has become such an issue, the booming presence of social networking sites means that a different type of more implicitly personal information is there for anyone to read.
The social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace have grown at the warp speed that only the internet could allow. Facebook claims to have more than 50 million users, 250 million daily page views, and on the basis of Microsoft's 1.6 per cent purchase of the company in October for $US240 million, a valuation of $US15 billion.
One of the ways to justify those numbers is for advertisers to have targeted access of this captive market, which is what Facebook sought to provide through a system called Beacon. This alerted the "friends" of a Facebook subscriber to the goods and services their friend bought online through Facebook's many partner sites.
Privacy takes on a different cast in cyberspace. The hosts of MySpace or Facebook pages could post legions of the most intimate real or imagined personal details about themselves, but would rise as one when their friends found out what they were buying.The descriptions of these sites neatly straddle the generational divide.
To James Wolcott, a columnist and commentator with Vanity Fair magazine, the social networking sites represented "the insatiable narcissism of self-documentation" of modern youf.For Danah Boyd, a Harvard fellow, PhD candidate at the University of California, and blogger of 10 years' standing, the sites simply represent a continuation of everyday life, where the eternally present parents - "helicopter parents", for their propensity to hover over every aspect of their child's life - mean that the MySpace/Facebook constituency of 12- to 25-year-olds have never known true privacy anyway.
"They've been under constant surveillance since they were very young," Boyd says. "Kids are constantly being surveilled by people with direct power over them - parents, teachers, etc. Compared to your parents what is a marketer or the government going to do?"
New Illuminati Comments: Patriotism is not only the last refuge of a scoundrel, but also the sheepskin pulled over everyone's eyes by the wolves who devour us, our children and our freedoms.Those who forget the lessons of history…
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