In his book 1984, Orwell (1949) paints a picture of a future devoid of privacy, where the government, "The Party", controls every action of its citizens. Cameras, snitches, and microphones are everywhere. Families are pitted against each other as children are taught in school to spy on their parents. Wearing the wrong expression on one's face is illegal, as it is a precursor to crime.
As absurd as this scenario sounds, at times, it is eerily similar to our own technology driven society. Don't be deceived, Big Brother is watching. The current advances in technology, as well as the fear of terrorists and enemies, have opened the door for a variety of potentially invasive new products, ideas, and laws. Granted, many of these may have good intentions and uses, the potential for abuse is too great. With so much change so quickly, it is hard for society to draw the line between what measures should be taken for safety's sake, and what measures are excessive and violate privacy.
Our freedoms should not be curtailed in the name of protection. In order to maintain freedom, sacrifices must be made, that is, in being free, we assume certain risks. In order to be completely "safe" we give away any claim to freedom. In the Land of the Free, what would it mean if every move were watched, every purchase traced, and every form of communication monitored.
In the next few months and years, some very important decisions must be made about the fate of the right to privacy. If not made wisely, the Orwellian picture of the future may, in fact, become our own.
In 1935, the United States Government instituted a program called Social Security that was intended to track the income of all citizens in order to calculate the benefits when a person retired or became disabled. In order to keep records organized, every citizen was given a nine digit, uniquely identifying number. This system is still in use today, and although the Social Security numbers were never intended as an all purpose identifier, in essence, this is what they have become.
Today, Social Security numbers are use for everything from buying a car, to enrolling in school, to simply signing up for cell phone service (3). Milwaukee School of Engineering, to the anger of many students, even uses Social Security numbers as the student ID numbers, placing them, along with a name and photo, on student identification cards. Many other institutions use similar means to keep track of the personal information of customers or patients.
Although this may not seem like a major issue, it is. When Social Security numbers are used in such a diverse manner, and when institutions see them as ultimate proof of identity, serious problems may occour (Lopucki, 2001).
First, Social Security numbers can be used to look up a very large amount of private information about an individual because their use is so widespread. Criminals, companies, and other agencies could use this information in a damaging or invasive manner.
The second issue when using the numbers as a proof of identity is the risk of identity theft. When a number is seen as absolute proof of a person's identity, it becomes very easy for another to assume a false identity.
An identity thief begins by discovering the name and Social Security number of a potential victim and using it to open credit accounts in that person's name. The creditors accept the thief's assertion of identity principally because the thief knows the victim's number. In this transaction, the Social Security number serves as a password--knowledge of the number is accepted as proof of identity (Lopucki, 2001).
A criminal possessing the Social Security of another credit card accounts may be opened, and bills may be charged under the victim's name. He or she may also be able to access the victim's bank accounts and withdraw funds.
"Identity theft is one of the easiest, most risk-free crimes thieves can commit. They don?t need a gun, a knife, or a getaway car. All they need is someone's social security number and a pen."(Sen. Debra Bowen QTD MacMillan, 2001)
Besides being dangerous, the fact that all a person?s private information could be stored under a number, or even worse, a very small computer chip, is very frightening. The potential for abuse is too great, and the question must be asked, who watches the watchers?
Who does watch the watchers?
According to their website, the National Security Agency (NSA), "coordinates, directs, and performs highly specialized activities to protect U.S. information systems and produce foreign intelligence information." (About the National Security Agency, 2001) The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) claims that the NSA, in conjunction with other foreign countries created a system called ECHELON. This global surveillance system, presumably capable of monitoring electronic communications such as phone calls, Internet traffic, satellite transmissions, and e-mails, is believed to intercept as many as 3 billion communications a year (2).
Our government however, refuses to admit to ECHELON existence. The secrecy of our leaders in order to violate privacy goes directly against our county's constitution. This system, in essence, conducts illegal, warrant-less searches, and collects information without a person's prior knowledge. Due to its classified nature, it bypasses the country's judicial system, and escapes the checks and balances that are in place to prevent any abuse of power.
These ECHELON, or any similar surveillance systems, should be revealed, because, as a democracy, citizens must have the right to knowledge, as well as the ability to approve of disapprove of government actions.
Knowledge IS power. What puppets do we become when others know everything about us, but we remain unaware of their existence?
As citizens dedicated to freedom, we need to fight for liberty as well as protect it. Foreign countries, for various reasons, desire to attack our freedom. As was seen recently, the lack of intelligence poses a serious threat to America and its people. Rep. Curt Weldon, (R-Pa.) a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, said, "There was no intelligence. This was a massive operation and it's a failure that was caused by a lack of resources. ... Our government failed the American people" (Diamond & Bendavid, 2001).
The need for information pertaining to terrorists or foreign nations may be great, but this does not mean that everyone?s rights should be violated. Innocent until proven guilty is a basic axiom of our judicial system. Unfortunately, our government would rather punish all for the sake of finding a few bad seeds.
On October 18, 2001, in response to the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Towers, congress passed, with a sweeping vote of 98-1, an "anti-terrorism" bill, which "gives the police broader powers to wiretap phones, track Internet traffic, and examine private financial and educational records in the hunt for terrorists" (Meyer, 2001). This new bill allows police to use methods that until now have been illegal or required greater oversight.
Clearly, this new bill violates a very important freedom that the Constitution grants:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized (United States Constitution).
Sen. Feingold (D-Wisconsin) was the only vote opposing this bill. Feingold said that the bill, although better then what was previously proposed, still had the potential to encroach on the constitutional protections against the abuse of surveillance powers and secret searches. He claims,"the bill still does not strike the right balance between empowering law enforcement and protecting civil liberties."(Meyer, 2001) He said that one provision is worded so broadly that, "the government can apparently go on a fishing trip and collect information on virtually anyone."(Meyer, 2001)
Just remember, Big Brother IS watching.
The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it, moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on 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. 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 (Orwell, 1949).
At this year's Superbowl, frighteningly enough, a system remarkably similar to the Thought Police's telescreens was used. The facial scanning technology, marketed under the name "Facefinder", snapped an image of ever person that walked into the park on the day of the big game, which was unofficially dubbed the "Snooperbowl". The Facefinder compares certain features of a face to those of known criminals, which are stored in a database. The process takes just seconds (Chachere, 2001).
According to Michael Levine, a former Drug Enforcement Administration agent and now radio talk show host, the problem with the system is that law enforcement officials show no desire to limit the increasing power that these new tools give them (Chachere, 2001). The facial scanning technology's use is growing, and as of yet, remains unregulated. No laws govern the use or potential abuse of these systems, and at the moment, the government, businesses, and other organizations can use these systems to their liking.
Without restrictions to govern the use of such potentially invasive technology, we run the risk of having our lives controlled by an outside entity, much like Winston.
In the fight against terrorism, we must not forget what it is that we are really fighting for. Unfortunately, freedom and safety often conflict. It seems that both cannot exist to their fullest extent simultaneously, and therefore, careful thought must be given to which, in fact, is more important.
The safety of the citizens of the United States, although very important, should not take priority over liberty. Our country was founded on the fact that we are free, and should remain as such. For this freedom, however, sacrifices must be made. Risks are assumed in order to keep this basic right. As a country dedicated to the principles on which it was founded, we must be willing to take these risks, and whatever consequences may come. This is the price that is paid for liberty. We must never lose sight of the fact that this is America, the land of the free and the home of the brave.