How Privacy in America Went Virtually Extinct in Just a Decade

By David Rosen

We’ve come a long way since the 1880s when Sir Francis Galton, a British anthropologist and a cousin of Charles Darwin, first undertook the scientific study of fingerprints as a means of identification. Now, two centuries later, all information is digital, created, distributed and displayed as a series of 1s and Os.

Today’s surveillance and tracking systems can (in principle) integrate infinite amounts of information: your location and identity via GPS and face recognition technology; video feeds from the cameras located down the street or across the globe; records from any and all databases; electronic communications like voice and emails. It’s all in the processors and the sky’s the limit.

Large server farms — analysis centers — operate throughout the country. They consist of huge “cloud” servers that aggregate and process the datasets through innumerable applications or programs. They process data from federal agencies and local governments as well as private companies, including commercial aggregators who sell personal information.

High-tech surveillance can best be described as 21st-century digital alchemy. It’s not clear how a suspicious activity report can generate either a timely warning; little hard data is available to evaluate the effectiveness. Nor do the entities backing the systems, government or private, provide detailed cost estimates of the building and operating fees of their programs in terms of foiling a single terrorist plot — is there a cost-benefit analysis? The fog of post-9/11 allows the federal government to avoid detailing the true costs associated with the post-9/11 high-tech anti-terrorist mobilization.

The fog of 9/11, a decade-plus later, also permits the popular acceptance of a new policing fiction: Americans must give up their privacy right to safeguard the nation … and enrich private contractors.

The surveillance state is moving aggressively, like the military-industrial complex did after WWII, to capture a huge chunk of federal and local government spending. In the face of the ongoing U.S. economic restructuring, corporate America is banking on the surveillance cash-cow.

The 21st-century surveillance state is anchored in monitoring all digital communications. With the exception of unmediated, face-to-face conversations, little personal life exists outside of a digital sequence of 1s and 0s. Surveillance advocates believe their system can, for example, identify suspected terrorists and prevent an attack. Security pundits argue that facial recognition and other sophisticated software can identify a terrorist; that specially equipped tollbooths and police cars can read passing license plates and cut down on stolen cars. Bold claims are backed with little hard evidence.

The earlier boundaries that characterized “privacy,” like one’s home, mail or phone calls, are so oh-so 20th century. Digital privacy is a thing of the past. Our online presence, our every keystroke, our voice communications, our every commercial exchange, our very digital identity has become a quasi-public characteristic monitored by government and corporate entities. Big Brother has become America’s new normal.

Two surveillance systems that have recently been in the news, TrapWire and Domain Awareness System (DAS), point to the future of the surveillance state.

First, the isolated element (e.g., the fingerprint, the mug shot) is being integrated into a complex digital profile. Yet, whether a suspicious person or object (e.g., car, container), 21st-century surveillance is grounded in state-of-the-art guesswork.

Second, these systems represent two different business models; one of government use of private product (TrapWire), the other a joint venture between a city government and a private corporation (DAS). This may suggest the next phase in the development of capitalism’s corporate state: from regulator to partner. But most of all, TrapWire and DAS exemplify how the state, at both the federal and local levels, is increasing its power to track the lives of ordinary Americas.

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