Midnight of a surveillance society
In the week that new laws requiring phone companies to keep records of ALL calls and make them available to a range of agencies came into force in Britain, a report from the United States gives a chilling account of the destruction of civil liberties in that other great “democracy”.
In 2003 and 2003, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) described in separate reports how new technology was feeding a surveillance “monster” and how the government and private sector were increasingly “mining” data about individuals. In a further report, the ACLU says the situation has worsened dramatically and warns: “We are far too close to the midnight of a genuine surveillance society, and the second hand has not stopped sweeping around the dial.”
The state is engaged in a series of illegal activities. The National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency have departed from their supposedly exclusive focus on overseas spying, and have “turned their eyes and ears inward upon the American people” in violation of existing laws and the Constitution. The ACLU report shows that:
- the NSA has gained direct access to the telecommunications infrastructure through some of America’s largest companies. It is using broad data mining techniques to evaluate the communications of millions of people within the United States
- some of the major telecom companies have granted the NSA direct, wholesale access to their customers’ calling records – once again, outside the law – and that the NSA is compiling a giant database of those records
- the Treasury Department and the CIA is secretly sifting through the records of the global financial cooperative SWIFT, without Congressional authorisation or judicial oversight
- The NSA is sifting through the sea of communications using keyword searches, link analysis or other techniques such as voice pattern analysis
- A system for tracking cargo, also generated terrorist ratings on tens of millions of travellers, including American citizens
- the FBI’s “Investigative Data Warehouse” appears to be soaking up a broad array of data on innocent individuals
- a national ID system scheduled for 2008 will take state-issued documents such as a driver’s licence and turning them into nationally controlled, full-fledged national identity papers
- a radical shift in the use of CCTV, in which private cameras are actually tapped into by centralised government systems is under construction. New York City police plan to link together thousands of police and private video cameras combined with licence plate readers and a central police monitoring centre
- in August 2007 it was reported that the Department of Homeland Security was planning to deploy the nation’s spy satellites for domestic security purposes
- the government is claiming sweeping new powers to check the results of people’s Internet searches.
The ACLU report concludes: “In August 2007, the Bush Administration pressured Congress into enacting a misnamed Protect America Act. While the NSA can already engage in mass untargeted eavesdropping overseas, this legislation for the first time allows the government to engage in mass, untargeted collection of Americans’ communications (specifically, any conversations between people in the United States and overseas)… It cuts the courts out of the process, and permits the U.S. Attorney General to unilaterally issue a new legal order… in which entire programmes of electronic surveillance would be authorised in one sweep.”
Many of the practices described in the ACLU report take place in Britain too. New Labour has spent a decade building its own version of the surveillance society. The Brown government is constructing an authoritarian, one-party state and should it win the forthcoming election, it will press ahead with the destruction of what remains of our basic rights and civil liberties. One more reason to withhold your vote whenever the election is called.
AWTW communications editor
3 October 2007