Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Big Brother and You

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

Sir Percy Browne (Head of Security): One day, Mr. Fiennes, you will have the entire British population under permanent 24 hour surveillance — will you be happy?

Mr. Fiennes: Happy? No — Satisfied.

A Very British Coup (TV adaptation)

The British Evening Standard reports:

The Big Brother nightmare of George Orwell's 1984 has become a reality - in the shadow of the author's former London home.

It may have taken a little longer than he predicted, but Orwell's vision of a society where cameras and computers spy on every person's movements is now here.

According to the latest studies, Britain has a staggering 4.2million CCTV cameras - one for every 14 people in the country - and 20 per cent of cameras globally. It has been calculated that each person is caught on camera an average of 300 times daily.


One fear is a nationwide standard for CCTV cameras which would make it possible for all information gathered by individual cameras to be shared - and accessed by anyone with the means to do so.

(Hat tip to Drew for the article.)

The short article doesn't fully discuss the major difference between CCTV systems installed by shop owners, which are much more defensible, and CCTV installed by the government, which are much less so. Security and discouraging shoplifting is one thing. Acquiring information mostly just for the sake of it is another. There is a potentially chilling effect, and there have always been authoritarian government officials in every government eager to pursue precisely that. Britain may exceed the U.S. in its use of CCTV and other surveillance cameras, but the U.S. Government's budget for surveillance is second to none, and the impulse is all too familiar.

Here in the United States, we've recently had confirmed that the FBI abused the use of National Security Letters, and that abuse was widespread. The only surprise is that anyone was surprised. It's hardly been the only instance of such behavior. In the past two years alone, both the Pentagon and the FBI were found to be holding onto records they were legally obligated to destroy. Once agencies have information, they are loathe to give it up, and rarely do so voluntarily.

Sadly, regardless of the country involved, there's always been a significant portion of law enforcement personnel that don't care about the law regarding civil rights (in countries that have civil rights). The reasons vary, none of them mutually exclusive. Some of these people might mean well but simply don't value civil liberties and privacy rights as much as national security and law enforcement. They think they're going after bad guys, and any means necessary are valid. Thus, we have former NSA head and current CIA head Michael Hayden arguing that the 4th Amendment doesn't require warrants for searches and surveillance, when of course he knows better. Some want all the data they can get, and lying about "expediency" and "urgent need" with a national security letter is a means to that end. Some like the rush of power. J. Edgar Hoover abused his power to blackmail politicians. Then there's the Bush administration's secret black ops prisons and NSA programs. Ostensibly these tools are used to "fight terrorists," who knows the full extent of what they've been up to, and how they've abused their power? The central lie is that if we just give up this one more freedom or level of privacy, then we'll be safe. Certainly the Bush administration has repeatedly demonstrated they cannot be taken at their word and cannot be trusted to do the right thing by conscience or even the law alone.

Entire books and blogs are devoted to this sort of thing, but the Blue Herald FBI category features a number of relevant stories, as does the Vagabond Scholar surveillance category, especially the posts "The Iceberg Cometh" and "Reporters' Phones Tapped?" because they link several related stories. Then there's stories in the vein of FBI agent James Wedick, who tried to halt what he viewed as serious misconduct and misjudgment by his colleagues in pursuit of a suspected terrorist.

For that matter, consider the story of the FBI trying to get the papers of reporter Jack Anderson shortly after he died, worthy of a feature article on its own. As covered by NPR, CBS, and The Washington Post, the FBI had no qualms about deceiving Anderson's 79-old widow in pursuit of information it wanted. The FBI wanted to track down leakers from a decades-old incident, and swooped in after Anderson died, because where he had denied them they thought they could snow his family and friends. There was no pressing "national security" issue. The crime at that point was that some FBI bigwigs had been embarrassed long ago. That's holding grudges for a long time. The Bush administration has sought unprecedented levels of secrecy over even trivial matters. The Office of the Vice President has engaged in fierce battles not to share information even within the Bush administration. Secrecy can be its own aim, to cover up wrongdoing and in a shocking number of cases, to prevent embarrassment. But as Sissela Bok has shown in Secrets and Lying, "lies for the public good" are almost always rationalizations by those in power to protect themselves, and not in the public interest.

It's hard out there for an honest cop, and it can be an extremely tough gig. However, those who "protect and serve" would do well to remember that they "serve" the public, not the other way around, and every abuse against civil rights and privacy laws is an assault on the public. If those in positions of power want our trust, they must act in a trustworthy fashion. No one forced the FBI agents to act as they did with national security letters, and they violated the law and their own consciences. What is the point of fighting for "freedom" abroad or domestically if we're willing to strip it away ourselves?

The saying that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely is true. Oversight is an necessity. Unchecked power will always be abused eventually, as Orwell knew all too well. The phrase from Juvenal goes: Sed quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who watches the watchmen?

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