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They Are Already Here

While it is true I have not been posting much lately, I have been reading a great deal.  Mostly about the seemingly inexorable drift toward total government control of information.  I have written quite a bit about this before (see The American Taliban and everything under Government Intrusion), and I feel certain it will the major theme of 2007 for me.  This post is about a few relevant stories I picked up over the first month of the year.

At the very beginning of the year, Secrecy News reported that a US Federal Court had ruled that

... the need to protect government secrets overrides all other considerations.

This was in a case where the widow of an agent, perhaps killed in the line of duty, was suing the CIA.  The judge agreed with the Agency that some secrets are worth screwing people over for.  The government trumps the people every time.

In 1984, Big Brother could always see everything you were doing.  It was a primary element of control.  Few today recognize how close to that vision we already are.  According to an article in GovTech News:

Some estimates put around 30 million video surveillance cameras in the United States, shooting four billion hours of footage each week. The video surveillance industry has grown into a $160 billion global industry, especially after homeland security efforts after 9/11, where the federal government has poured money into video surveillance. Numerous cities have set up cameras in various locations many increasingly connected with wireless technologies, with traffic lights only the beginning. New York City, with the help from a Department of Homeland Security grant, has created a network of thousands of cameras throughout the city, including subway stations, traffic signals and private businesses. The New York City Police Department operates its own network of 3,000 cameras. Chicago has also received grant funds from the DHS and built a "Homeland Security Grid" of 2,250 cameras, with plans to add even more cameras in the coming years. Baltimore and New Orleans also have thousands of cameras throughout the cities.

Collecting all that data is one thing, analyzing it is quite another.  The same article indicates how software can help:

Video Analytics is a software system at the forefront of security technology that is helping to minimize the need for human viewers to distinguish important events from video feeds. Video analytics software tracks live video monitor feeds and pinpoints video images that fit specified criteria. When the software identifies predetermined criteria, such as a person loitering, or a bag left at the airport, or a car in a restricted area, it will then set off appropriate alarms to security personnel.  "Traditional video services are very reactive and you have to make sure to pay attention to cameras and try to make sense of what's going on, where with video analytics, the software uses mathematical algorithms that actually shift through all the videos and triggers alerts if something goes wrong," said Dilip Sarangan, research analyst for Frost and Sullivan.

Sounds great. But what it really means is that whoever programs the analysis gets to choose what is a suspicious activity.  Not you and I, but some nameless them will decide what to investigate and, of course, being paid agents of the government, will decide in a way that meets government criteria.

In the middle of the month, more details of the very dangerous national security letters were reported on by AP.

The so-called national security letters permit the executive branch to seek records about people in terror and spy investigations without a judge's approval or grand jury subpoena. Government lawyers maintain the legal authority for such tactics is years old and was strengthened by the Patriot Act. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, the lead agency on domestic counterterrorism and espionage, has issued thousands of national security letters since the attacks of September 11, 2001.

That much has been known for a while.  Now we learn that these letters have been used to obtain banking and credit records without any other form of warrant.  We are also becoming ever more aware that the CIA and military intelligence are using these same letters for domestic surveillance, an area they are supposedly barred from.

"There's a strong tradition of not using our military for domestic law enforcement," said Elizabeth Rindskopf Parker, a former general counsel at both the National Security Agency and the CIA and dean at the McGeorge School of Law at the University of the Pacific told the Times. "They're moving into territory where historically they have not been authorized or presumed to be operating."

We can bemoan the growth of government intrusion but, as Shreema Mehta of the NewStandard notes, the government could not be prying into your bank records without the knowledge and assistance of the banks themselves. 

Kevin Bankston, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told The NewStandard that banks took the easy way out and complied with the requests instead of challenging the government over the security of their customers’ data ... US law generally prohibits banks from disclosing data to the government, but it has several exceptions. For instance, banks must disclose data if served with a court order or if requested by the FBI for investigations related to national security. The Patriot Act also made amendments to the Bank Secrecy Act, allowing banks to report "suspicious" activities to intelligence agencies. It also frees banks from legal liability for disclosing those activities, or for failing to tell customers they did so.

For those who like more academic styles of discussion on this topic, I have to recommend two very interesting papers:  Reviving The Nixon Doctrine:  NSA Spying, The Commander-in-Chief and Executive Power In The War On Terror by David Cole, and Domestic Surveillance For International Terrorists:  Presidential Power and Fourth Amendment Limits by Richard Henry Seamon.




February 2, 2007 in America Inc, Bush Administration, Government Intrusion | Permalink

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