“Star Wars Episode II: The Attack of the Clones” isn’t an epic tale of literary or artistic excellence to many, but the movie certainly pointed out a topic of concern to us all. If you will remember, the “Chancellor of the Republic,” who we all know will become an evil autocratic dictator jerk with yellow eyes and bad teeth in later movies, decided he wanted to take more control of the government. His ploy? Play on the fears of the people and let their fear overcome their common sense. Let them voluntarily relinquish their freedoms for “safety.”
No, we shouldn’t be calling G.W. “Emperor” yet, although his world politics over the past year, particularly now with Iraq, warrant a few raised eyebrows. What we should be concerned about is homeland security and where the sacrifices we make now regarding personal freedoms and privacy may lead.
CNN.com recently questioned how capable we are of becoming a surveillance society. Last Memorial Day, for example, photo recognition computers and cameras were implemented at the Statue of Liberty, just in case known terrorists wanted to stop by. In San Francisco, an electronic fund highway toll system will be used to monitor commuting patterns. The president of the American Library Association disclosed that after Sept. 11, library records were seized, although libraries are not legally bound hand them over, as a way for investigators to attempt to determine political affiliations by people’s reading selections.
These examples, while benign, are indications that systems are in place where information about ourselves is available to others without our knowing consent. What happens if these systems are linked? Think about it. Is the Internet safe from prying eyes? Not even close – even the Cookie Monster couldn’t keep up with all the “cookies” computers send back and forth. Telephone calls? Cell phone satellites monitor everything. Money transactions? ATM cards document all. How about what you eat? Supermarket scanners record every item. Walking down the street? There are security cameras everywhere these days. Should these systems be linked together, you’ve got yourself a complete surveillance system tagging your every move. The ironic thing is that terrorists aren’t likely to be a part of many of these systems. Humble, everyday Americans with rights to privacy are.
This is all paranoia, right? Even if such monitoring systems are in place; even if more advanced systems are being researched daily; does it mean there is any interest in monitoring everyone? And even if a fraction of these monitoring technologies are implemented, does this small subtraction of our privacies amount to any loss of our unalienable freedoms? Not quite yet. Still, research into complete society surveillance have expanded exponentially since Sept. 11, and there are few lawmakers saying which surveillances should be allowed to be public domain and which ones should remain private. It is, therefore, conceivable that surveillance information could be brought to people you don’t want – folks like telemarketers and insurance agencies, for example. Alternatively, should more advanced systems be brought forth, it is likely that innocent people may be red-flagged as enemies of the state.
This is not simply George Orwellian hype. As any survivor of McCarthyism could tell you, investigations and policies have a way of starting out narrowly and then expanding into a horrible creature that makes Godzilla look like Papa Smurf.
Society surveillance is already here and it is growing. Before it spreads much further, we all need to critically reflect upon Benjamin Franklin’s words: “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” What can we afford to lose?