An Electronic Concentration Camp: Big Brother in the Sky
By John W. Whitehead
Short of hiding out in a cave, far removed from any trace of modern technology, it would seem that there is no longer any escaping the electronic concentration camp in which we live.
Whether we’re crossing the street, queuing up at the ATM or picnicking in the park, we’re under constant scrutiny—our movements monitored by cameras, tracked by satellites and catalogued by a host of increasingly attentive government agencies. No longer does the idea of an omnipresent, omniscient government seem all that far-fetched. And as technology becomes ever more sophisticated, the idea of a total surveillance society moves further from the realm of George Orwell’s science fiction fantasy into an accepted way of life.
In fact, surveillance has become an industry in itself, with huge sectors having sprung up devoted to developing increasingly sophisticated gadgets to keep American citizens under surveillance, with or without their cooperation. The science behind the gadgetry is particularly brilliant. For example, human motion analysis, a pet project of researchers at the University of Maryland, aims to create an individual “code” for the way people walk—researchers refer to it as “finding DNA in human motion.” Dubbed Gait DNA, this surveillance system works by matching a person’s facial image to his gait, height, weight and other elements—all captured through remote observation, thereby allowing the computer to identify someone instantly and track them, even in a crowd.
Soon there really will be no place to hide. Oceanit, a Hawaii-based company that has been working with the Hawaiian National Guard in Iraq, is preparing to roll out sense-through-the-wall technology next year that can “see” through walls by picking up on sensitive radio signals emitted by the human body to determine vital signs such as breathing and heart rates. As Ian Kitajima, the marketing manager for Oceanit pointed out, in addition to telling users whether someone is dead or alive on the battlefield, the technology “will also show whether someone inside a house is looking to harm you, because if they are, their heart rate will be raised. And 10 years from now, the technology will be much smarter. We’ll scan a person with one of these things and tell what they’re actually thinking.”
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the central research and development agency for the Department of Defense, is credited with ensuring that the U.S. remains ahead of the game when it comes to such far-reaching technology. According to a recent BBC news report, “Back in the 70s, while we were working with typewriters and carbon paper, Darpa was developing the Internet. In the 90s, while we pored over maps, Darpa invented satellite navigation that many of us now have in our cars.” DARPA is currently working on technology that will enable users to understand any language spoken to them, as well as fine-tuning the prototype for an unmanned airplane with surveillance cameras that would be able to stay airborne for up to five years.
And on October 1, the government will launch its latest assault on privacy by making data from U.S. satellites available to federal agents. These satellites, which orbit the earth 24 hours a day and have historically provided high-resolution photographs to track climate changes and foreign military movements, will now be used to watch for terrorist activity and drug smuggling, among other things. Yet they are a far cry from the satellite imagery many Americans have become acquainted with through Google Earth and MapQuest. These spy satellites not only take color photos, they also use more advanced technology to track heat generated by people in buildings.
In fact, as the Wall Street Journal points out, “The full capabilities of these systems are unknown outside the intelligence community, because they are among the most closely held secrets in government.” Moreover, the technology is expected to be made available to state and local law enforcement agencies within the year, which raises serious concerns about the deepening ties between domestic law enforcement agencies and the military.
This latest citizen surveillance program comes draped in the familiar government mantra that it will keep us safe from terrorists. As Charles Allen, the chief intelligence officer for the Department of Homeland Security, explained to the Washington Post, “These systems are already used to help us respond to crises. We anticipate that we can also use it to protect Americans by preventing the entry of dangerous people and goods into the country, and by helping us examine critical infrastructure for vulnerabilities.”
Yet despite the government’s best efforts to sell the program, it is nothing less than “Big Brother in the sky,” as Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies, aptly termed it. Indeed, since 9/11, the U.S. government has been building an arsenal of surveillance tools aimed directly at American citizens, largely paid for by American taxpayers and fueled by our fears.
For too long now, the American people have been ruled by fear. We are afraid of terrorists, afraid of crime, even afraid of our next-door neighbors. More than anything else, Americans want to feel safe. According to the BBC News, opinion polls show that approximately 75% of Americans want more, not less, surveillance. But there is wisdom in the adage to “be careful what you wish for, lest it come true.”
Implemented with virtually no oversight from Congress, this particular surveillance program will be overseen by the Homeland Security Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which is a little like letting the foxes guard the chicken coop. And while some might argue that we at least live in a benevolent surveillance state, one that seemingly has our best interests at heart, I beg to differ. Whether we choose our prison or have it foisted upon us, the end is still the same: a lack of freedom.