We’ll All Be Under Surveillance


How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate, they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. —George Orwell, 1984

The writers who most influenced me were: Charles Dickens (a superb journalist—in his appalled description of a hanging at New York’s Tombs, for example—as well as an enduring novelist) and Arthur Koestler (whose Darkness at Noon taught me when I was 15 that dishonest means irredeemably corrupt all ends, no matter how noble). But above all was George Orwell, who, like Thoreau, listened to his own drum.

Orwell died in 1950. Prophetic as he was in 1984, however, he could not have imagined how advanced surveillance technology would become. His novel is now being actualized in real time at the Defense Department, headed by the Washington press corps’s favorite cabinet officer, the witty Donald Rumsfeld.

John Markoff of The New York Times broke this story on February 13, when he wrote that retired admiral John Poindexter, national security adviser for President Ronald Reagan, “has returned to the Pentagon to direct a new agency that is developing technologies to give federal officials access to vast new surveillance and information-analysis systems.”

There was scarcely any follow-up in the media until Markoff, on November 9, aroused the dozing press by reporting that “the Pentagon is constructing a computer system that could create a vast electronic dragnet, searching for personal information as part of the hunt for terrorists around the globe—including the United States.”

Without any official public notice, and without any congressional hearings, the Bush administration—with an initial appropriation of $200 million—is constructing the Total Information Awareness System. It will extensively mine government and commercial data banks, enabling the FBI, the CIA, and other intelligence agencies to collect information that will allow the government—as noted on ABC-TV’s November 14 Nightline—”to essentially reconstruct the movements of citizens.” This will be done without warrants from courts, thereby making individual privacy as obsolete as the sauropods of the Mesozoic era. (Intelligence from and to foreign sources will also be involved.)

Our government’s unblinking eyes will try to find suspicious patterns in your credit-card and bank data, medical records, the movies you click for on pay-per-view, passport applications, prescription purchases, e-mail messages, telephone calls, and anything you’ve done that winds up in court records, like divorces. Almost anything you do will leave a trace for these omnivorous computers, which will now contain records of your library book withdrawals, your loans and debts, and whatever you order by mail or on the Web.

As Georgetown University law professor Jonathan Turley pointed out in the November 17 Los Angeles Times: “For more than 200 years, our liberties have been protected primarily by practical barriers rather than constitutional barriers to government abuse. Because of the sheer size of the nation and its population, the government could not practically abuse a great number of citizens at any given time. In the last decade, however, these practical barriers have fallen to technology.”

Once the story of Americans being under constant surveillance began to have legs, press interest was particularly heightened by the Defense Department’s choice to head this unintended tribute to George Orwell. Poindexter, as Turley reminded us, “was the master architect behind the Iran-Contra scandal, the criminal conspiracy to sell arms to a terrorist nation, Iran, in order to surreptitiously fund an unlawful clandestine project in Nicaragua.”

Poindexter was convicted of lying to Congress and destroying documents. His sentence was reversed because he had been granted immunity for testifying in the case. But the evidence against him stands. So this lawbreaker has been put in charge of a project, paid for by our tax dollars, to direct all kinds of personal information on all of us into interconnected computers.

As Richard Cohen wrote in The Washington Post, “Soon, another computer—this one a behemoth—will reassemble us digitally, authoritatively, and we will be what it says we are.”

In all the media stories I’ve seen on this creation of a real-life Big Brother, Poindexter’s boss, Donald Rumsfeld, has gotten a pass from the press in that he escapes mention as the Bush cabinet member who approved the hiring of Poindexter. And since Rumsfeld is a hands-on administrator, he must surely know what Poindexter is doing with his initial $200 million budget.

As usual, George W. Bush, the commander-in-chief of the Pentagon, has been ignored by the press as the ultimate authorizer of the Total Information Awareness System—except for one reference. Queried about Poindexter’s Iran-Contra history, Bush said, “Admiral Poindexter has served our nation very well.”

In Orwell’s 1984, “the telescreen [at home] received and transmitted simultaneously,” so that the viewer could be seen and heard by Big Brother. Now under development are advanced forms of interactive television that will also make this prophecy real.

Meanwhile, on National Public Radio, Larry Abramson reported that the Office of Information Awareness, which Poindexter heads, is developing techniques of “face recognition, using CCTV camera systems that would allow government officials to identify individuals moving in public space.” As we move, we could also be identified by the way we walk or the sound of our voices.

And in an editorial, The Washington Post added, “If computers can learn to identify a person through a video camera, then constant surveillance of society becomes possible too.”

Democrat Russell Feingold of Wisconsin—the only member of the Senate to vote against the USA Patriot Act—urges that the administration “immediately suspend the Total Information Awareness program . . . until Congress has conducted a thorough review,” and cut off the funding until then. But why even consider continuing the funding at any point?

Tell your representatives in Washington what you think.

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