I watched a very interesting Frontline last night on public television. Sadly, the Country Music Awards had pre-empted my beloved NCIS, so I was forced to something else as I started packing for my first ever camping trip in the Bay Area.
It was more than a little disturbing, although also somewhat not surprising. The special looked at the government surveilance of the general US public. It's really not such a leap to think that the government can and most likely does have access to data about me that's pretty mundane. I have all sorts of cards/memberships at different stores which allow those private sector businesses to track my purchases and give me incentives to buy more. I have a library card. I have credit and debit cards that I swipe everywhere (well, the credit cards not so much anymore).
What was surprising, however, was the information about how it is that the government can and does have access to almost all communication that I do online and by the phone. I don't have cable or they'd probably know that I didn't get to watch NCIS last night.
To say that they know what I'm doing is a bit of an exageration. The likelihood that they are going to actually pay close attention to what I am saying or who I am reading or writing to is pretty small, unless I title an e-mail "Future targets for Jihad in America" and send it to an ISP in Afghanistan. I'm just not really that important.
But it's worrying, all the same. Mistakes happen and without some protection against those mistakes (like the right of habeus corpus which those folks at Guantanamo had to work so hard to have), there is going to be the inevitable SNAFU. And given the current climate of fear, those SNAFUs are not going to be pretty.
Some examples from my own life, which have rattled me and give me some insight into how such a SNAFU might play out. You see, sometimes to gain the attention of the watchers you only have to have a name that is similar to someone that the government is "interested" in. You might think that spinsterwitch wouldn't have such a name, but don't be too sure.
About 2 years ago, I had the ICE (formerly INS) come knocking on the door saying they were from Homeland Security. See they were looking for an illegal immigrant who they had heard lived in my building with his girlfriend. After talking to my building manager, they somehow decided that our names were similar enough to warrant knocking on my door and asking a lot of rather harrassing questions. When I opened the door and they didn't see the petite, Hispanic woman they were expecting they didn't back away, they kept asking questions. I finally had to tell them that I didn't date men (at the time I wasn't dating anyone). They went away.
But prior to that, an even more worrying incident happened. I had just completed my graduation trip to Scotland in 2000. I was standing at customs waiting to have my brand-spanking new passport cleared when a beep went off on the custom agent's computer. He looked at the screen, then at my passport, then at me. "Did you know that you have the same name as a criminal?" he asked. OMG! I so did not! I guess my expression was enough because he gave me back my passport and sent me on my way. Now maybe it was clear I wasn't the criminal by looking at me, but when the government is assessing a threat to a large area, they are not looking at pictures but at data and names. I have no idea who it is who shares my name, or what they have done, but I feel marked and vulnerable in a way that is not reassuring in this day and age.
I don't think, at this point, that we can actually stop the surveillance that is happening, but I do think that we need to get more engaged in discussion about it and starting looking critically about what information is being accessed and why and when, and how can we protect people like me, who would die of anxiety if I committed a crime, but could nonetheless come under scrutiny.