As I mentioned in the past, I’m a big fan of the podcast Radiolab. Recently, they ran a story called “Eye in the Sky” that got me to think quite differently about government surveillance. But I’ll get to the podcast in a moment as I want to start out with a no-brainer, that it’s no secret that the government watches us, tracks us and, in some cases, spies on us. Yet to the degree that it does, and to the degree that we allow it to is something that I don’t think many of us often contemplate.
Even after the Edward Snowden disclosures the outrage about extraconstitutional government intrusion into the private lives of its citizens was short-lived and somewhat muted. We were apathetic when we should have been irate. We should have demanded change. But we didn’t. Instead, the powers that be paid us some lip-service about increasing transparency and holding the NSA, CIA, FBI, DHS, etc., accountable for their actions. Of course, none of that happened.
What we got instead were some trivial adjustments to the “Patriot Act,” recently, that in no way change, reduce or curtail the government’s ability to spy on us. Congress had the nerve — in true Orwellian fashion — to call those adjustments the “USA Freedom Act,” as if we are somehow more free or better off following its enactment on June 2, 2015.
No we are not better off. Just like under the Patriot Act, under the USA Freedom Act the government will still be allowed to collect telecommunication metadata on all of us. The only real difference is that now the phone companies will hold on to the metadata instead of the NSA. But the NSA will still have all the access it wants to that data. And that’s the important point after all. It’s not about who holds onto the data, but who has access to it.
Another inconsequential change is that when the government requests data from phone companies, it will only be able to store it for eighteen months instead of the five years allotted under the Patriot Act. Of course, if the government decides you’re a person of interest, all bets are off. You’re on the watch list.
But even supposing for a moment that these changes would somehow make a difference, the truth is that there is no way to tell if the government is actually keeping its promise on them. That’s because we rely on an inept Congress and a secret FISA court that pretty much rubber stamps every surveillance request made by the NSA, FBI, CIA. Yes, the word “secret” is not an exaggeration, as all FISA’s hearings are closed to the public. To put it mildly, we’re screwed. And our essential liberties and freedoms have never been in more jeopardy than they are today.
It’s with that thought in mind that I circle back to the Radiolab podcast I recently listened to. Because, if you thought somehow things were going to get better in terms of government surveillance, you could’t be more wrong. Technology is constantly changing the game, making it easier for the government agents to monitor the lives of Americans, and there’s no way to put the genie back in the bottle. Here’s the blurb from the podcast (which I encourage you to listen to):
Ross McNutt has a superpower — he can zoom in on everyday life, then rewind and fast-forward to solve crimes in a shutter-flash. But should he?
In 2004, when casualties in Iraq were rising due to roadside bombs, Ross McNutt and his team came up with an idea. With a small plane and a 44 mega-pixel camera, they figured out how to watch an entire city all at once, all day long. Whenever a bomb detonated, they could zoom onto that spot and then, because this eye in the sky had been there all along, they could scroll back in time and see – literally see – who planted it. After the war, Ross McNutt retired from the airforce, and brought this technology back home with him. Manoush Zomorodi and Alex Goldmark from the podcast “Note to Self” give us the low-down on Ross’s unique brand of persistent surveillance, from Juarez, Mexico to Dayton, Ohio. Then, once we realize what we can do, we wonder whether we should.
It’s only a matter of time before wide swaths of the public begin supporting the idea of constant government drone surveillance on U.S. soil (I could see certain Democratic politicians pushing it right now, e.g. Hillary). The pitch of a “safer” albeit more closely monitored society is hard to resist, especially to those who don’t believe they are responsible for their own safety — which I’m afraid to admit is the prevailing mindset in this country (only 1 in 3 of us own firearms). So, if you ask me, it won’t be long before we are all living under and eye in the sky. The question is what happens then? What happens to those of us who exercise our Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms? What happens to those of us who are critical of the government?