Life in the Electronic Concentration Camp (John W. Whitehead)
Wednesday January 8th, 2014
What is most striking about the American police state is not the mega-corporations running amok in the halls of Congress, the militarized police crashing through doors and shooting unarmed citizens, or the invasive surveillance regime which has come to dominate every aspect of our lives. No, what has been most disconcerting about the emergence of the American police state is the extent to which the citizenry appears content to passively wait for someone else to solve our nation's many problems. Unless Americans are prepared to engage in militant nonviolent resistance in the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi, true reform, if any, will be a long time coming.
Yet as I detail in my book A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, if we don't act soon, all that is in need of fixing will soon be unfixable, especially as it relates to the police state that becomes more entrenched with each passing day. By "police state," I am referring to more than a society overrun by the long arm of the police. I am referring to a society in which all aspects of a person's life are policed by government agents, one in which all citizens are suspects, their activities monitored and regulated, their movements tracked, their communications spied upon, and their lives, liberties and pursuit of happiness dependent on the government's say-so.
As the following will show, the electronic concentration camp, as I have dubbed the surveillance state, is perhaps the most insidious of the police state's many tentacles, impacting almost every aspect of our lives and making it that much easier for the government to encroach on our most vital freedoms.
Tracking you based on your consumer activities: Fusion centers, federal-state law enforcement partnerships which attempt to aggregate a variety of data on so-called "suspicious persons," have actually collected reports on people buying pallets of bottled water, photographing government buildings, and applying for a pilot's license as "suspicious activity." Retailers are getting in on the surveillance game as well. Large corporations such as Target have been tracking and assessing the behavior of their customers, particularly their purchasing patterns, for years. In 2015, mega-food corporations will be rolling out high-tech shelving outfitted with cameras in order to track the shopping behavior of customers, as well as information like the age and sex of shoppers.
Tracking you based on your public activities: Sensing a booming industry, private corporations are jumping on the surveillance state bandwagon, negotiating lucrative contracts with police agencies throughout the country in order to create a web of surveillance that encompasses all major urban centers. Companies such as NICE and Bright Planet are selling equipment and services to police departments with the promise of monitoring large groups of people seamlessly, as in the case of protests and rallies. They are also engaging in extensive online surveillance, looking for any hints of "large public events, social unrest, gang communications, and criminally predicated individuals."
Tracking you based on your behavior: Thanks to a torrent of federal grants, police departments across the country are able to fund outrageous new surveillance systems that turn the most basic human behaviors into suspicious situations to be studied and analyzed. Police in California, Massachusetts, and New York have all received federal funds to create systems like that operated by the New York Police Department, which "links 3,000 surveillance cameras with license plate readers, radiation sensors, criminal databases and terror suspect lists."
Tracking you based on your face: Facial recognition software promises to create a society in which every individual who steps out into public is tracked and recorded as they go about their daily business. The goal is for government agents to be able to scan a crowd of people and instantaneously identify all of the individuals present. Facial recognition programs are being rolled out in states all across the country (only twelve states do not use facial recognition software).
Tracking you based on your social media activities: The obsession with social media as a form of surveillance will have some frightening consequences in coming years. As Helen A.S. Popkin, writing for NBC News, has astutely observed, "We may very well face a future where algorithms bust people en masse for referencing illegal 'Game of Thrones' downloads, or run sweeps for insurance companies seeking non-smokers confessing to lapsing back into the habit. Instead of that one guy getting busted for a lame joke misinterpreted as a real threat, the new software has the potential to roll, Terminator-style, targeting every social media user with a shameful confession or questionable sense of humor."
Tracking you based on your metadata: Metadata is an incredibly invasive set of data to have on a person. Indeed, with access to one's metadata, one can "identify people's friends and associates, detect where they were at a certain time, acquire clues to religious or political affiliations, and pick up sensitive information like regular calls to a psychiatrist's office, late-night messages to an extramarital partner or exchanges with a fellow plotter." The National Security Agency (NSA) has been particularly interested in metadata, compiling information on Americans' social connections "that can identify their associates, their locations at certain times, their traveling companions and other personal information."
To put it bluntly, we are living in an electronic concentration camp. Through a series of imperceptible steps, we have willingly allowed ourselves to become enmeshed in a system that knows the most intimate details of our lives, analyzes them, and treats us accordingly. As George Orwell warned, "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."
Thus, we have arrived in Orwell's world. The question now is: will we take a stand and fight to remain free or will we go gently into the concentration camp?
Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead [send him mail] is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. He is the author of A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State and The Change Manifesto (Sourcebooks).