Land of the watched, home of the spied upon

062506video.jpgI live in the mountains – deep in the mountains – of Southwestern Virginia, far away from what most call civilization.

You’ve heard of the proverbial town with one stop light? Our county has only one stop light, one permanent one since a construction project on U.S. 221 added four temporary stoplights to two bridges that the Virginia Department of Transportation is resurfacing and cut down to one-lane.

Yet even in my little backwoods hick county, I’m under video surveillance many times a day.

It may start when I drive through that maze of stoplights at the two bridges 500 yards apart. Video cameras tape every car that passes through that construction project, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  These are videocams, not stoplight enforcement cameras.

If I stop at any one of my little town’s three convenience mart/gas stations, I am photographed while filling my car with gas or while buying a cup of coffee. At least one convenience mart in town has a direct link to a Virginia State Police computer that inserts an image of my face into a facial recognition program to see if I’m wanted anywhere or might be a suspected terrorist. When I stop at the drive-through automatic teller machine (ATM) at the bank, another camera snaps my picture as I withdraw money from my checking account.

The monitoring doesn’t end with cameras. When I slid my credit card into the reader on the gas pump at the Exxon station this morning a high-speed dataline sent my name and account number to Exxon’s computers in Texas where they checked by balance before approving the purchase and then forwarded information on the purchase by another high-speed line to a bank of computers at 3701 Fairfax Drive in Arlington, home of the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency’s Terrorism Information Awareness Network (TIA).

The TIA computer matches my gas purchase against my last use of a credit card to see where I might have last purchased gas, an airline or train ticket or a motel stay. This provides Uncle Sam with my pattern of travel and that pattern is matched against any pattern which someone thinks might be suspicious or worthy of a second look.  The information is also matched my other financial activity: bank account deposits and withdrawals or charge account activity. Then they match the records with National Security Agency monitoring of phone calls and email usage. If anything looks suspicious to them, a file is opened and I become a "person of interest." Friends in a position to know tell me I became a person of interest to these folks some years ago.

As Lisa Hoffman outlines in her excellent series on video surveillance published today on our web site, we are nation constantly being watched by those we do business with, by police, by government and by our bosses.

Uncle Sam knows what books you read, either through public library records or your purchases at the local borders. He knows how often you stop at Starbucks to get a latte or if you shack up at the local no-tell motel once a week with your mistress. He knows where you drive, when you drive there and how much gas you bought to make the trip. Odds are, he knows more about what you than your boss, your minister, your spouse or your significant other.

The question is whether or not anyone, in a so-called free society, needs to know all this information about anyone else. Government monitoring of its citizens has increased at an alarming rate since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and those who raise the question of whether or not it is excessive face the threat of being branded "soft on terrorism" or even anti-patriotic.

Yet vast reams of information are gathered daily on Americans whose only "crime" is using a credit card, passing through a video-monitored bank or making a phone call. And nobody is quite sure what happens to all this information since so much of it is kept secret by a Presidential administration that hides just about everything under the cloak of "national security" and thinks it has a God-given right to govern as it wishes without oversight or question.

Yes, Big Brother is watching…and listening…and monitoring…and compiling…and studying…and God knows what else.

So much for the land of the free.

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