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February 26, 2005

Man, Technology and State


by Scott Horton
 

Listen to Scott's interview with Brian Doherty

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It's clear at this point in the history of our nation that the national government is not limited in any serious way by the restrictions placed upon it in the Constitution. The limited republic envisioned by the founders has given way to unlimited democracy and empire. Government will likely encroach more and more on what had previously been considered unalienable rights here at home as it slaughters innocents overseas. Apparently, "we had an accountability moment," and the worst administration since the days of Woodrow Wilson remains in position to conduct more killing sprees and authorize more indefinite detentions.

The police state thugs of Wilson's day, however, could probably never have imagined the technological advances our society has seen. Some of this technology (such as this website and this one) can be useful in the fight for liberty. But with the newest and most advanced technology typically being subsidized by the state, it's no surprise that those with the police power have the upper hand. Some examples of this kind of revolution in the technology and the authority of the central state can be found in the Real ID Act, H.R. 418, the subject of an article by Brian Doherty in Reason magazine. (See also his piece on the lawsuit of John Gilmore.) I asked him about this on my radio show February 19th. [stream] [download mp3]

During "War Time" (even when the battles are fought far from here), the dangers to individual liberty are potent. As passed on February 10th, the House version of the H.R. 418 (which has been sanctified throughout by references to danger from terrorists and illegal immigrants) would require all fifty states to "upgrade" driver's licenses to have digital mug shots, and, a "common machine-readable technology, with defined minimum data elements." In English, that means the information must be standardized so that every state and national government of North America (you read that right) can easily access one big data network that holds it all. Those of us without "upgraded" licenses will be unable to board planes or partake in any wonderful services the national government provides. Can you recall the great democratic public debate that determined this course? Me neither.

The "Real ID Act" would also require the states to demand proof of that which is "not to be used for identification purposes" – a social security card – in order to get the newly designed state driver's license. Soon, the Social Security card itself will be "upgraded" with biometric data and, in a fine example of Orwellian doublespeak, the words "This is not a National ID card." Many states are ahead of the curve. Here in Texas, a digital photo, thumbscans, a signature, and a Social Security Number, have been required for the "privilege" of traveling our roads since 1995.

Should the U.S. government be aware of every person who lives here, of every place they go, of every dime they spend? And for what nefarious purposes might this information be used? Even though most of us can't feel the immediate negative effects of this sort of encroachment from day to day, we also can barely travel from here to there without seeing (and being seen by) cameras at nearly every intersection. We read in the news about TIA, the Total (oops, I forgot – they changed it) Terrorist Information Awareness program at the Pentagon which monitors databases everywhere, looking for "suspicious" patterns in people's personal behavior. We hear about how TIPS, the domestic snitch project under the Department of Justice, became Talon, overseen by Paul Wolfowitz over at the DoD.

Don't forget the private Matrix database shared by most states. According to the ACLU, "the Michigan State Police Department has provided [this database with] not only criminal records, but also driver's licenses, motor vehicle registration records, credit histories and marriage and divorce records." There's also the recently down – but not outCAPPS II airline passenger screening system which assigns each passenger a color-coded profile, to be determined by computer "observations" of arbitrary details such as the way one walks and speaks, the amount of facial hair (pdf) one does or does not have, etc. Some Americans will choose to have their eyeballs scanned to save them the hassle of waiting in line for hours at the airport. (Who's fault is that?) Soon it could be mandatory. If what's good for America is good for Fallujah, then the reverse must also be true, right?

"Sorry Sir, but the computer says we have to hold you here…"

In the past we've learned of the National Security Agency's Echelon program, which intercepts and sifts through phone calls, and the FBI's Carnivore system, which rifles through our email box. The post-September 11th PATRIOT Act gives the executive branch broad new powers to investigate our bank accounts without probable cause, and requires certain businesses to report high-dollar purchases to the national government. Sometimes the feds even eavesdrop on your OnStar.

The high-tech surveillance grid is expanding on the local level as well. We see, for example, an increase in the numbers of high-tech toll roads. These of course are all equipped with radio towers so you can have a transponder installed in your car to allow a computer to deduct the dollars straight from your bank account. It isn't supposed to matter to you that a database (or perhaps many) downloads and saves your daily errands.

Government says they do all of this to protect us, to stop terrorists, to stop identity theft. But the truth is that this government is itself the greatest danger. They are the ones who provoke the terrorists, and they are the ones who assign us the numbers so often stolen by impersonating thieves. They are the ones who hold two million people behind bars, and over seven million inside the criminal justice system in one form or another. Yet somehow we still turn to them to protect us, or, as is most often the case, when they just put the cameras up without discussion, we remain silent, and they take it for consent.

Our Brave New Homeland Security State, which now insists on expanding their DNA database, can't stand to be investigated itself, even about events which took place decades ago, as I learned when I first interviewed (mp3) Robert Stinnett about FDR's treason at Pearl Harbor. He told me that he was having trouble researching the details of a story he'd come upon while researching for Day of Deceit. It was of how during World War II, Roosevelt gave the Army Air Corps specific orders not to bomb the German railroads which serviced the concentration camps, because the sixty year old documents had been re-classified under the PATRIOT Act.

National Security, huh? Whatever happened to "If you haven't done anything wrong, you don't have anything to worry about"?

While politicians are far more dangerous than capitalists, the latter are no angels in this, and the combination of the two can be a disaster. Mix in billions of little ones and zeros representing the most detailed history of millions of lives, and you may have a real problem. Choice Point, a private firm cashing in on government contracts, and whose excuse for compiling all of this information is that they're in the business of running backround checks, has apparently given up your life story to some con artists. The New York Times says we need better privacy laws. The U.S. Senate will hold hearings.

The late Neil Postman, in his book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology wrote of his fear that at the pace technology is currently evolving and its (like government's) uncanny ability to justify itself, the beliefs and traditions that have shaped our society and preserved our freedoms will be unable to withstand the assault.

"Technopoly eliminates alternatives to itself in precisely the way Aldous Huxley outlined in Brave New World. It does not make them illegal. It does not make them immoral. It does not even make them unpopular. It makes them invisible and therefore irrelevant. And it does so by redefining what we mean by religion, by art, by family, by politics, by history, by truth, by privacy, by intelligence, so that our definitions fit its new requirements."

Is it too late for our society to accept some technologies, and reject others, or is Postman's belief correct that all new gizmos that can be invented, will be, and implemented too? Will we be able retain our old ideals of liberty as we scan our eyeballs and thumbs at the nearest DHS checkpoint? It may take a massive effort from us all to preserve what's left of our human cultures and liberties to avoid a future as bleak as the one Mr. Postman feared was coming.

As government schools begin to track every step the kiddos take with RFID, they begin to print, "This is not a National ID Card" on our new microchipped Social Security cards, and a gang of criminals inherit the federal police power, we must realize that the time has come for those who believe that humans are born free and should stay that way to step up and call foul. The development of new technology can't be undone, but we must force a real debate about the role we are going to let these gadgets play, and keep finding ways to use them ourselves to strike back against those who wish to do our liberty harm.

 

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  • Scott Horton is an assistant editor at Antiwar.com and the director of Antiwar Radio.

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