In the Brave New America, little brother could be listening, too

It's extremely difficult for us to imagine the full extent to which our electronic communications and other transactions are monitored and collated in secret government databases and office parks. Most people don't even think about the pervasive and ever growing monitoring -- it's too big, too scary, too unfathomable. And that unimaginable-ness is a huge part of why: even if we regularly think about the problem, the omnipresent and yet invisible surveillance regimes operate in the background, like malware on our computers. We don't realize they are there because we cannot see them, touch them, smell them.

But you know what we can see, smell and touch? Airport security lines. Department of Motor Vehicle waiting rooms. Customs officials rifling through our stuff and asking us about our trips overseas.

My colleague Jay Stanley wrote about how even though the information revolution makes "it easy to connect and share information, [] making new forms of activism and resistance possible, [] it’s also shifting power in the other direction." There are plenty of examples available to demonstrate how true that is. Every Tweet you send to your friends connects you to a larger world and enables global solidarity movements to express their support for one another, but it also allows governments to sit back and collect detailed information on your organizing and social networks. You should read Jay's piece in full here; it makes a lot of really important points about how information and power are inextricably linked, and describes what that relationship looks like these days.

But I want to draw attention to an issue raised by a story he tells in that blog -- a story that clearly illustrates exactly how the most mundane and trivial (even annoying!) moments in our daily lives are recorded for posterity, and why that matters. In the information rich world here in the 21st century it often seems as if nothing we do or say will go unremembered, but it's hard to pin point exactly how that works or what it looks like on the day to day. Occasionally someone pulls back the curtain to reveal what it looks like, in plain text.

An example of this in the government context is illuminated by the travel rights activist Edward Hasbrouck, who obtained his Automated Targeting System (ATS) records from the Customs and Border Protection agency via a Privacy Act lawsuit. As Hasbrouck details in this presentation, the documents he received show that the government is not only keeping extensive, detailed travel data on all his international travel since 1992, but that the ATS system also allows border guards to write free-text notations in our permanent government travel record. In his own records, Hasbrouck found notations such as:

  1. PAX [i.e. passenger] VERBALLY DECLARED FOOD. 1. APPLE WAS SEIZED. BREAD WAS INSPECTED AND RELEASED. NO CIVIL PENALTY ISSUED
  2. PAX ATTENDED COMPUTER CONFERENCE IN BERLIN AND THEN TRAVELED AROUND EUROPE AND ASIA TO VISIT FRIENDS…. PAX IS SELF EMPLOYED “ENTREPRENEUR” IN COMPUTER SOFTWARE BUSINESS.
  3. PAX HAS MANY SMALL FLASHLIGHTS WITH POT LEAVES ON THEM. HE HAD A BOOK ENTITLED DRUGS AND YOUR RIGHTS

In short, Hasbrouck found this database contained records not only of an American’s precise travels, friends’ phone numbers, car license plates, timestamped IP addresses, hotel reservations, and much else—but also details of things he said to agents about his travel and about his life, and even details on the books he was reading and other First Amendment-protected content such as the designs on his flashlights.

Sure, you may not be "doing anything wrong" as you go about your daily life. But does it sit well with you that customs agents (who work for DHS) are making detailed notes about what you say to them when you are exhausted from a red-eye flight and simply want to go home? That these notes are kept in government databases for who knows how long, accessible to who knows how many people -- government workers and contractors both? That those databases also contain records about your travel, your associations and innumerable other data that reveal intimate things about you?

In our brave new big data future, it isn't always the Big Brothers we have to worry about. Sometimes the Little ones can be just as troubling. Who wants to live in a world in which low level state functionaries can play a role in determining whether we end up on a terror watch list, or worse, are entered into the mix of the Disposition Matrix? 

Should we now be afraid to talk politics in line while we wait for our drivers' licenses to be updated? Is the bureaucrat at the desk also taking notes about what we say and entering them into her computer? If so, those notes would only add a small bit of flavor to the swirling mass of data that the US government holds on us -- more data than the Stasi ever had about East Germans, even.

Let's hope we can all look back on this period of US history and be thankful that we had the decency and good sense to reject this kind of wholesale monitoring. Let's choose trust over fear. East Germany did it, so why can't we?

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