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'Round the Clock Surveillance: Is This the Price of Living in a 'Free, Safe' Society?

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"If you're not a terrorist, if you're not a threat, prove it. This is the price you pay to live in free society right now. It's just the way it is." -- Sergeant Ed Mullins of the New York Police Department

Immediately following the devastating 9/11 attacks, many Americans willingly ceded their rights and liberties to government officials who promised them that the feeling of absolute safety could be restored.

From http://www.flickr.com/photos/29570498@N07/7410640770/
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In the 12 years since, we have witnessed the onslaught of a full-blown crisis in government, starting with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, continuing with the torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, and coming to a head with the assassination of American citizens abroad, the importing of drones and other weapons of compliance, and the rise in domestic surveillance.

Still Americans have gone along with these assaults on their freedoms unquestioningly.

Even with our freedoms in shambles, our country in debt, our so-called "justice" system weighted in favor of corporations and the police state, our government officials dancing to the tune of corporate oligarchs, and a growing intolerance on the part of the government for anyone who challenges the status quo, Americans have yet to say "enough is enough."

Now, in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, we are once again being assured that if we only give up a few more liberties and what little remains of our privacy, we will be a free, safe society. The reality of life in America tells a different tale, however. For example, in a May 2013 interview with CNN, former FBI counterterrorism agent Tim Clemente disclosed that the federal government is keeping track of all digital communications that occur within the United States, whether or not those communicating are American citizens, and whether or not they have a warrant to do so.

As revelatory as the disclosure was, it caused barely a ripple of dismay among Americans, yet it confirms what has become increasingly apparent in the years after 9/11: The federal government is literally tracking any and all communications occurring within the United States, without concern for the legal limitations of such activity, and without informing the American people that they are doing so.

Clemente explained that authorities would have no trouble determining the nature of communications between deceased Boston bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his widow Katherine Russell. "We certainly have ways in national security investigations to find out exactly what was said in that conversation," stated Clemente. "All of that stuff [meaning phone conversations occurring in America] is being captured as we speak whether we know it or like it or not."

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In other words, there is no form of digital communication that the government cannot and does not monitor -- phone calls, emails, text messages, tweets, Facebook posts, Internet video chats, etc., are all accessible, trackable and downloadable by federal agents.

At one time, such actions by the government would not only have been viewed as unacceptable, they would also have been considered illegal. Some still are. However, the government seems unfazed. For example, despite federal court rulings to the contrary, the Department of Justice continues to assert that it does not require a warrant to access Americans' emails, Facebook chats, and other forms of digital communication.

Making matters worse, these government-initiated spying programs depend in large part on the willingness of corporations to hand over personal information about their customers to government officials, one of the so-called benefits of the corporate state merger. Some web companies, such as Skype, have already altered their products to allow government agents backdoor access to American communications. Corporations are also working on technologies to allow government agents even easier access to Americans' communications. For example, Google has filed a patent for a "Policy Violation Checker," software that would monitor an individual's communications as they type them out, whether in an email, an Excel spreadsheet or some other digital document, then alert the individual, and potentially their employer or a government agent, if they type any "problematic phrases" which "present policy violations, have legal implications, or are otherwise troublesome to a company, business, or individual." The software would work by comparing the text being typed to a pre-defined database of "problematic phrases," which would presumably be defined on a company-by-company basis.

The emergence of this technology fits in well with Google chairman Eric Schmidt's view on privacy, which is, "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place." Unfortunately, this is not just the attitude of corporate benefactors who stand to profit from creating spy technology and software but government officials as well.

Additionally, police officials throughout the country have become increasingly keen on monitoring social media websites in real time. Rob D'Ovido, a criminal justice professor at Drexel University, has noted that, "The danger of this in light of the tragedy in Boston is that law enforcement is being so risk-averse they are in danger of crossing that line and going after what courts would ultimately deem as free speech."

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For example, Cameron Dambrosio, a teenager and self-styled rap artist living in Metheun, Mass., posted a video of one of his original songs on the Internet, which reportedly included references to the White House and the Boston bombing. Police officers arrested Dambrosio and charged him with communicating terrorist threats, a felony charge which could land him in prison for 20 years.

Unfortunately, cases like Dambrosio's may soon become the norm, as the FBI's Next Generation Cyber Initiative has announced that its "top legislative priority" this year is to get social media giants like Facebook and Google to comply with requests for access to real-time updates of social media websites. The proposed method of encouraging compliance is legal inquiries and hefty fines leveled at these companies. The Obama administration is expected to support the proposal.

The reality is this: we no longer live in a free society. Having traded our freedoms for a phantom promise of security, we now find ourselves imprisoned in a virtual cage of cameras, wiretaps and watchful government eyes. All the while, the world around us is no safer than when we started on this journey more than a decade ago. Indeed, it well may be that we are living in a far more dangerous world, not so much because the terrorist threat is any greater but because the government itself has become the greater threat to our freedoms.

 

John W. Whitehead is an attorney and author who has written, debated and practiced widely in the area of constitutional law and human rights. Whitehead's aggressive, pioneering approach to civil liberties has earned him numerous accolades and (more...)
 

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What most Americans have yet to realize is that we... by John Whitehead on Tuesday, May 14, 2013 at 12:38:55 PM
Seriously, what is it everyone is trying to hide? ... by Simon Leigh on Tuesday, May 14, 2013 at 4:07:00 PM
Living in a communist country... by BFalcon on Tuesday, May 14, 2013 at 4:51:27 PM
to what you so sadly say! The question is what bus... by Gary Glaxon on Tuesday, May 14, 2013 at 5:22:54 PM
Mr. leigh is proud to fit into a dull conformist w... by Paul Repstock on Tuesday, May 14, 2013 at 9:25:16 PM
Collecion of data and evidentiary photographs, is ... by Paul Repstock on Tuesday, May 14, 2013 at 9:13:09 PM
Does anyone know of a case where a government surv... by Paul Repstock on Tuesday, May 14, 2013 at 9:35:18 PM
Abandoned 4 The Illusion of "Safety from the Enemy... by Andreas Ohland on Tuesday, May 14, 2013 at 11:06:22 PM
Obama is a fascist torturer war Criminal in democr... by Rob Kall on Tuesday, May 14, 2013 at 11:42:03 PM