'No Place to Hide': Nonstop Scrutiny, as Orwell Foresaw

R.A. Hettinga rah at shipwright.com
Fri Jan 28 18:58:35 PST 2005


The New York Times

January 25, 2005

Nonstop Scrutiny, as Orwell Foresaw

By Robert O'Harrow Jr.
 348 pages. Free Press. $26.

icture "Minority Report" combined with Orwell's "1984" and Francis Ford
Coppola's "Conversation": in an effort to prevent future crimes and predict
what certain individuals are likely to do, the government has begun working
with high-tech titans to keep tabs on the populace.

 One company has come up with a digital identity system that has tagged
every adult American with a unique code. Another company is intent on
gaining control of all records - including state and local files, financial
information, employee dossiers, DNA data and criminal background checks -
that define our identity. In addition to iris scanners, voice analyzers and
fingerprint readers, there now exist face recognition machines and cameras
that can identify an individual by how he or she walks. One government
group is working on infrared detectors that could register heat signals
around people's eyes, indicating an autonomic "fight or flight" response;
another federal agency has floated a proposal to assess risk by examining
airline passengers' brain waves with "noninvasive neuro-electric sensors."

This surveillance state is not a futuristic place conjured in a Philip K.
Dick novel or "Matrix"-esque sci-fi thriller. It is post-9/11 America, as
described in Robert O'Harrow Jr.'s unnerving new book, "No Place to Hide" -
an America where citizens' "right to be let alone," as Justice Louis
Brandeis of the Supreme Court once put it, is increasingly imperiled, where
more and more components of our daily lives are routinely monitored,
recorded and analyzed.

 These concerns, of course, are hardly new. Way back in 1964, in "The Naked
Society," Vance Packard warned about encroachments on civil liberties and
the growing threat to privacy posed by new electronic devices, and in 1971,
in "The Assault on Privacy," Arthur R. Miller warned that advances in
information technologies had given birth to "a new social virus -
'data-mania.' " The digital revolution of the 1990's, however,
exponentially amplified these trends by enabling retailers, marketers and
financial institutions to gather and store vast amounts of information
about current and potential customers. And as Mr. O'Harrow notes, the
terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, "reignited and reshaped a smoldering
debate over the proper use of government power to peer into the lives of
ordinary people."

Some of the material in "No Place to Hide" is familiar from news coverage
(most notably, the author's own articles about privacy and technology for
The Washington Post), from a recent ABC News special (made in conjunction
with Mr. O'Harrow's reporting) and from recent books like Jeffrey Rosen's
"Naked Crowd: Reclaiming Security and Freedom in an Anxious Age" and
Christian Parenti's "Soft Cage: Surveillance in America From Slavery to the
War on Terror."

 Still, Mr. O'Harrow provides in these pages an authoritative and vivid
account of the emergence of a "security-industrial complex" and the
far-reaching consequences for ordinary Americans, who must cope not only
with the uneasy sense of being watched (leading, defenders of civil
liberties have argued, to a stifling of debate and dissent) but also with
the very palpable dangers of having personal information (and in some
cases, inaccurate information) passed from one outfit to another.

Mr. O'Harrow also charts many consumers' willingness to trade a measure of
privacy for convenience (think of the personal information happily
dispensed to TiVo machines and Amazon.com in exchange for efficient service
and helpful suggestions), freedom for security. He reviews the gargantuan
data-gathering and data-mining operations already carried out by companies
like Acxiom, ChoicePoint and LexisNexis. And he shows how their methods are
being co-opted by the government.

The Privacy Act of 1974, enacted in the wake of revelations about covert
domestic spying by the F.B.I., the Army and other agencies, gave
individuals new rights to know and to correct information that the
government was collecting about them, but the government's current
predilection for outsourcing data-gathering to private companies has
changed the rules of the game.

 As Mr. O'Harrow notes: "Among other things, the law restricted the
government from building databases of dossiers unless the information about
individuals was directly relevant to an agency's mission. Of course, that's
precisely what ChoicePoint, LexisNexis and other services do for the
government. By outsourcing the collection of records, the government
doesn't have to ensure the data is accurate, or have any provisions to
correct it in the same way it would under the Privacy Act. There are no
limits on how the information can be interpreted, all this at a time when
law enforcement, domestic intelligence and foreign intelligence are
becoming more interlinked."

Privacy and civil liberties advocates have put the brakes on some
government projects, like the Total Information Awareness initiative
promoted by John Poindexter, the former vice admiral (of Iran-contra
notoriety), and a surveillance engine known (half jokingly) as the Matrix
(for the Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange) that would combine
criminal and commercial records in one blindingly fast system. Yet Mr.
O'Harrow points out: "The drive for more monitoring, data collection, and
analysis is relentless and entrepreneurial. Where one effort ends, another
begins, often with the same technology and aims. Total Information
Awareness may be gone, but it's not forgotten. Other kinds of Matrix
systems are already in the works."

Even now, one mini-me version of Big Brother or another is monitoring
Americans' daily lives, from the computer "cookies" that map our
peregrinations around the Net, to the MetroCards, E-ZPasses and
car-installed Global Positioning System devices that track our travels, to
the security cameras that eyeball us at banks and stores. Mr. O'Harrow
writes that RFID (radio frequency identification) tags will be attached
soon to credit cards, bank passbooks and "anything else that will enable
businesses to automatically 'know you' when you arrive," and that several
organizations "are working on a standard that would enable every
manufactured item in the world to be given a unique ID, at least

"Before long," he adds, "our phones, laptop computers, Palm Pilots,
watches, pagers and much more will play parts in the most efficient
surveillance network ever made. Forget dropping a coin into a parking meter
or using a pay phone discreetly on the street. Those days are slipping by.
The most simple, anonymous transactions are now becoming datapoints on the
vast and growing matrix of each of our lives."

It is an alarming vision of the future uncannily reminiscent of the world
imagined by Orwell in "1984": a world where "you had to live - did live,
from habit that became instinct - in the assumption that every sound you
made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized."

It just arrived some two decades later than Orwell predicted.

R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah at ibuc.com>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <http://www.ibuc.com/>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

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