Is the U.S. Turning Into a Surveillance Society?

January 15, 2003

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Big Brother is now a realistic possibility

The United States has now reached the point where a total "surveillance society" has become a realistic possibility, the American Civil Liberties Union warns in a report, Bigger Monster, Weaker Chains.

Bigger Monster, Weaker Chains REPORT UPDATED: 
September 17, 2007:
 Even Bigger, Even Weaker: The Emerging Surveillance Society: Where Are We Now?

"Many people still do not grasp that Big Brother surveillance is no longer the stuff of books and movies," said Barry Steinhardt, former Director of the ACLU's Technology and Liberty Program and a co-author of the report.

"Given the capabilities of today's technology, the only thing protecting us from a full-fledged surveillance society are the legal and political institutions we have inherited as Americans," he added. "Unfortunately, the September 11 attacks have led some to embrace the fallacy that weakening the Constitution will strengthen America."

The ACLU said that its report, Bigger Monster, Weaker Chains: The Growth of an American Surveillance Society, is an attempt to step back from the daily march of stories about new surveillance programs and technologies and survey the bigger picture. The report argues that even as surveillance capacity grows like a "monster" in our midst, the legal "chains" needed to restrain that monster are being weakened. The report cites not only new technology but also erosions in protections against government spying, the increasing amount of tracking being carried out by the private sector, and the growing intersection between the two.

"From government watch lists to secret wiretaps -- Americans are unknowingly becoming targets of government surveillance," said Dorothy Ehrlich, deputy executive director of the ACLU. "It is dangerous for a democracy that government power goes unchecked and for this reason it is imperative that our government be made accountable."

A recent illustration of the danger, according to the ACLU report, is the Pentagon's Total Information Awareness (TIA) program, which seeks to sift through a vast array of databases full of personal information in the hunt for terrorism. "Even if TIA never materializes in its current form," Steinhardt said, "what this report shows is that the underlying trends are much bigger than any one program or any one controversial figure like John Poindexter."

Steinhardt said that Americans haven't yet felt the full potential of the new technology for invading privacy because of latent inefficiencies in how government and businesses handle information. "Database inefficiencies can't be expected to protect our privacy forever," said Steinhardt. "Eventually businesses and government agencies will settle on standards for tying together information, and gain the ability to monitor many of our activities -- either directly through surveillance cameras, or indirectly by analyzing the information trails we leave behind us as we go through life."

The report was authored by Steinhardt and Jay Stanley, Public Education Director of the Technology and Liberty Program.

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