America’s most watched

You’re being watched. Not only by Uncle Sam but also by your employer, by the kid working behind the counter at the local gas station, by the automatic teller machine at your bank and by your computer.

We are a society under surveillance, constantly monitored, scrutinized 24/7, analyzed for patterns and suspected without reason.

And, for the most part, the vast majority of us don’t mind.

That may be more frightening than anything else.

Writes Steven Winn in The San Francisco Chronicle:

Americans are being closely and constantly watched, carefully scrutinized and meticulously monitored as never before. From government wiretapping, to Google cameras that offer up street-level views of private houses around the world, to mighty digital data banks that record and store everything from real-estate-loan applications to pizza purchases, the machinery of observation and analysis has become powerful and pervasive.

And how do members of the public react to all this unsought attention? In most cases, they either take it for granted or feel reassured. To a considerable extent, whether through willing acquiescence or willful innocence, people seem surprisingly ready to accept what would have been seen, not so long ago, as alarming invasions of privacy.

Indeed, in an age that empowers anyone with a cell-phone camera and an Internet connection, we’re all free to participate in this surge of information gathering and revelation. All of us can be spied on and engage in some high-visibility spying of our own.

“People have a desire to be protected,” says Oscar Gandy, professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication. “We have this expectation that technology will solve the problem.”

Jennifer King, a research specialist at the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic at the University of California-Berkeley, believes that “surveillance feels comfortable to some people.”

“There’s a sense of guardianship, a feeling that someone is watching over me. It counteracts that aura of anonymity in the public space,” she says.

Gary Marx was a 1960s UC-Berkeley activist and civil libertarian who once took a “sky is falling” view that privacy was gravely endangered; he opposed virtually all intrusions. Today the Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor emeritus has a more measured approach to the issue.

“Nobody used to check the backgrounds of adults who wanted to work with children,” Marx says. “It’s appropriate that we do that now. Children are safer because of it.” Marx even argues that the problem of identity theft could be substantially controlled if people were willing to absorb the social and ethical costs of encoding more personal and biometric information, including facial topography and eye-recognition data.

While calling some aspects of the Bush administration’s Patriot Act and other programs predicated on national security “clearly illegal,” Marx does not reject them entirely. “History moves in cycles,” he says. “In periods of crisis and perceived threat, there is going to be less liberty.”