Down to the Wire | Ex-Context | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Down to the Wire 

Creeped out by government surveillance? You should be

The president recently signed the new-and-improved PATRIOT Act, which includes "30 new significant civil liberties safeguards," the Justice Department boasts. The significance is in the eye of the beholder. These new provisions are an effort to regulate such arcane matters as roving wiretaps and "good faith" emergency warrantless eavesdropping. They set a deadline for delayed-notice search warrants, which are just what they sound like. They also mandate "high-level" authorization for information requests for sensitive categories such as library records -- whew, thank God -- and medical records.

All of this seems highly useless. We already have a highly touted Bill of Rights. Maybe it's been mooted over the years and reduced to noble-sounding words on paper, but then again … that's all the new protections are, too. By its own admission, the White House has been ignoring the whole procedure for warrantless eavesdropping for the past several years.

If somebody in authority decides you might be saying something that they should be listening to, they're going to listen. There's no reason not to: In a criminal case, if some evidence was acquired from an illegal search or wiretap, the only penalty you're likely to face is that the judge could throw out the evidence. If you are the president, the worst that will happen is presidential hopefuls might threaten you with censure.

There are scads of people who are very happy with this state of affairs. I'm sure you've heard someone express the opinion that "if you aren't doing anything wrong, you shouldn't be afraid of a little scrutiny." I guarantee that anyone who says that has never been the object of official surveillance, has never been tailed all day long by agents or had a tracking device placed on his car, has never had agents move into the apartment below and bug every room in the apartment, or even just had his phone tapped.

Anyone who has been on the receiving end of this sort of treatment realizes there are a lot of things he says or does that, while not criminal in nature, he would rather keep to himself.

The luxury of privacy is quickly going the way of rotary phones. Under the auspices of the Defense Department's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), John Poindexter, of Iran-Contra fame, sought to initiate the "Total Information Awareness" program, which could create a file on everyone by weaving together strands of data from travel, credit-card and bank records along with electronic toll and driver's license databases.

Another DARPA project, Human ID at a Distance, is spending millions to perfect "biometric technologies" such as face recognition and gait-performance detection. Face recognition cameras are already being used in airports and casinos. It won't be long before a wireless network of cameras equipped with face-, walk- and license-plate-recognition software will be able to track individuals and update their files with up-to-the-minute location information.

The newest toy that has become available is RFID (Radio Frequency ID tags). Each of these incredibly tiny microchips, about the size of a pepper flake, transmits its own unique ID code. They can be hidden almost anywhere, even on the period at the end of this sentence. Their potential for use in surveillance is limitless.

The bottom line here is that if something is possible, someone will eventually do it. And even if most of those who do it have good intentions, someone is bound to abuse the technology -- including cops and prosecutors. In the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, who allegedly was involved in the 9/11 plot, the prosecutors couldn't restrain themselves from coaching witnesses -- even after the judge specifically ordered them not to.

In the future, someone in the government will be spying on you: maybe the FBI or Homeland Security, probably the IRS. They'll be spying on me too. I don't like it, but hey, I've been in prison. I'm used to it. In case you think that it can never happen to you, all I can tell you is, I never would have believed that the DEA would continually steal my garbage, either. Until they did.


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