By Victor Thorn
As technological innovation advances in ways very few could have predicted, and the cost to produce these new gadgets rapidly declines, it was only a matter of time before these twin forces would spread to the surveillance sector. Whether you think it’s a good thing that technology is simplifying your life, or you fear the far-reaching surveillance society, one thing’s for certain: The snooping’s here to stay and it’s touching everyone’s life.
Arguably, the clearest and most ominous example of how technology has crept into our lives is the drone. Known formally as an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), drones have been employed in war zones in pursuit of enemy forces, and are now being utilized by local police forces across the United States purportedly to fight crime. The use of these devices will spread in the coming years, with their sizes shrinking to dimensions only imaginable in science fiction movies.
Besides the all-seeing UAVs, police patrol cars are being outfitted with surveillance technology known as “extraction devices,” which are capable of downloading data and images from cell phones, including photos and videos. These snooping tools override hidden information, can secure passwords and scoop up information on the cell phone user’s whereabouts. Local law enforcement agencies have allied themselves with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and are forcing wireless providers to surrender private text messages.
In New York City, a separate social media eavesdropping unit has been established to follow the users on Facebook and Twitter, two of the most popular social media websites which allow users to stay in touch via messages and photos. While the nation’s capital has incorporated automated license plate readers that snap pictures of vehicles traveling inside Washington, D.C., other large cities are looking to facial recognition technology to scan crowds for wanted individuals.
Perhaps the most controversial of the known surveillance devices is the so-called “Mobile Backscatter Vans.”Utilizing Transportation Security Administration x-ray technology, “these pornoscanner wagons look like regular vans and will cruise America’s streets, peering through the cars and clothes of anyone in range of its mighty isotope-cannon,” writes Cory Doctorow.
Technology is playing a vital role in this breach of our civil liberties, as well. As AMERICAN FREE PRESS has chronicled, “smartmeters” track a homeowner’s energy consumption, while Hollywood-like science-fiction “pre-crime” gadgetry predicts behavior patterns and targets those deemed to be “potential” rapists, thieves and murderers. Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report wasn’t too far off from the future when it was released to audiences in 2002. The film is set in the year 2054, where the police apprehend criminals based on foreknowledge provided by psychics. Right out of that movie, Massachusetts Institute of Technology is experimenting with facial expression machines that can determine from afar what a person is feeling.
Behind these space-age advancements lurk corporations like Google and Apple that track data from smartphones or data mine personal information, such as credit information or tax records. If consumers log on to any type of product that is embedded with certain computer surveillance technology, it is likely that somebody somewhere is amassing and storing information derived from it. If Internet service providers decide that subscribers are downloading too many movies on their computers, they can limit access to the Internet through a process known as “shaping bandwidth.” And don’t be too surprised if banks soon place microchips on credit cards that can transmit purchases directly to marketing agencies.
AFP has reported in depth on a San Antonio school district’s placement of radio frequency identification (RFID) implants on student IDs. Broken by AFP’s Mark Anderson, that story worked its way to other news media across the country. Unfortunately, though, the trend is expanding.
In the fall of 2012, high schools from Maryland to Massachusetts did away with daily roll calls, instead issuing ID cards to students so they could check in by swiping their cards through terminal readers. Educators near Philadelphia went above and beyond this, sending kids home with laptop computers that recorded their actions via hidden computer cameras, called webcams.
Governments from the local level all the way up to D.C. have been encouraging the good, old-fashioned snitch culture under the “See Something, Say Something” program, whereby neighbors turn in neighbors, for things like questioning the official version of 9-11 or for owning guns or stockpiling food. In 2004, DHS came under fire for enrolling truck drivers into a highway watch program, where they could report allegedly suspicious behavior. Following that program, the agency released a list of “characteristics” that qualify Americans as “domestic terrorists.”
As author Jim Redden stated in his book Snitch Culture, “Citizens are being turned into the eyes and ears of the state.”
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