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from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.
Monday, April 09, 2007
Privacy, the dictionary says, is the state of being free from unsanctioned intrusion. But that definition seems anachronistic, with ubiquitous intrusion a new fact of life. For security, or mere efficiency, we Americans are sanctioning the end of our right to deny sanction to such invasion.
That is a quote from the final paragraph of Fingerprint foreboding, an op ed in today's Boston Globe by the superb writer James Carroll, provoked by his reading about school near Boston that intends to have students tap an electronic reader with a finger as a means of identifying themselves to pay for school lunch. The technology has already been banned in other states. And given his past, Carroll brings a unique perspective to the skepticism about the use of fingerprints.
You see, Carroll (whose father was a high-ranking intelligence officer) spend one summer as a college student working for the FBI. As he notes
I went each day to what was called the " Ident Building," the mammoth headquarters of the Identification Division, which occupied most of a block in an anonymous corner of Southwest D.C. near the rail yards. In the building's vast open rooms were thousands of file cabinets holding millions of cards, each with ink smudges and classification codes. A swarm of file clerks (of whom, for a time, I was one) buzzed around the drawers like bees around a network of hives..
Carroll describes a bit of the history of biometrics, from the 19th century use of calipers to measure skulls and other body parts, with acknowledgement of the imprecision of such measurements. BY the 20th century, the switch to fingerprints because of the uniqueness and permanancy of the ridges and swirls fingerprints
proved to be the perfect aid to the law enforcement project of identifying persons who do not want to be identified.
That was the point of fingerprints, of course. The entire system of collection and classification aimed at criminal prosecution.
Carroll, as an employee of the FBI, was fingerprinted. SO was I, as an enlistee in the Marine Corps. So were, as I have been told, were many who toured the J. Edgar Hoover building once it had been built (but in the early days these were often school children, and wasn't this done without parental permission?). The prints could be used to identify the dead (military especially, if dog tags were lost) as well as for purposes of criminal justice, and in theory the FBI distinguished between civil and criminal files. And yet the main purpose of the voluminous files was to catch "bad" people. Carroll describes his own reaction to being fingerprinted:
That is why I remember the day that my own fingers were pressed onto the inkpad and card as one of foreboding.
With my fingerprints in the bureau file, the absolute presumption of innocence to which I was entitled as an American was mitigated. J. Edgar Hoover had a tag on me, and even though I admired him then, I felt the chill of his cold breath on my neck. The ink stain was hard to get off my fingers.
Carroll describes the next time he was fingerprinted, after being arrested at a peace demonstration in DC, and a reaction to the idea that his fingerprints were a window into who he was, enabling the bureau to know about him without his acquiescence.
In his penultimate paragraph Carroll offers a thought experiment:
Imagine if, in addition to fingerprints, J. Edgar Hoover had access to the high-tech biometrics of the iris scan; in addition to wiretaps, the eavesdropping technologies that snatch conversation out of the air; in addition to agent surveillance, the electronic trails of credit cards, cameras on subways, satellite imaging, and EZPasses that register auto traffic through every toll booth.. Then after the material quoted at the beginning of this diary, he reminds us that nowadays it is not just the FBI (and other law enforcement) that has windows into us - who we are is in many computers in private hands, suc as credit card companies, email servers, credit card bureaus and the like.
Carroll is writing with specific reference to the situation in one school district in Massachusetts. But his concerns are far more widely applicable, and he does not address all of the technology currently being used. George Orwell could not imagine the depth of knowledge available about each of us and J. Edgar Hoover would have drooled all over himself had he access to the technology that is so ubiquitous today. IF we use a discount card at the supermarket our buying patterns are being recorded. If we use a credit card - especially because we want to earn cash back such as I get on my Costco American Express card - a much wider pattern of the purchases that define our lives is being constructed. As we switch to DSL and cable modems with fixed IP addresses any anonimty of our surfing disappears, even if we erase every cookie, all cache, the history files in our browser, even if we erase or destroy our entire hard disk. We know that Google can maintain a record of all our searches, that the providers of our email have a record of everything that goes through their servers (and that the government wants to require them to maintain those records for search purposes). We have found out that the NSA was having electronic traffic diverted into rooms that enabled them to vacuum up all information to search by computer.
We are constantly on camera - anyone who has watched law and order knows about the ubiquitous nature of surveillance cameras. And if you watched West Wing you got a hint of how far advanced is the technology to analyze and even identify using such video images - they can be digitized and processes even as they are being captured, they decreasingly require human viewing and analysis.
And now we have RFID tags. If you obtain a new passport, it will contain a passive chip that can be electronically checked at any point to identify where you are. Such technology has been used for a number of years to track things like shipping containers, and as the technology has become less expensive is being inserted into multiple products that we all buy. For all you know, your house already contains multiple items with such tags. And i you bought a Lo-Jack for your car, the police already have the ability to know where that car is at any time, without your knowing.
In the 1960's law enforcement and the military kept voluminous files on those they viewed with suspicion, primarily those opposed to the Vietnam war, or whom they suspected of being communists (perhaps because like me they were active in Civil Rights?). The Church Committee exposed much of those activities in the 1970's, and in theory the government was supposed to stop doing such things, at all levels of government. As we know from disclosures in recent years, such activities are again common, whether it is the electronic information gathering by the NSA orit is the Army keeping records on Quakers because we are classified as possible security threats because of our opposition to the military action in Iraq.
In theory we have civilian control over military activities. Also in theory, we can change these attitudes and such actions by those we elect to high office. In theory. Remember, Robert Kennedy approved of the wire-tapping of Martin Luther King, Jr. It was Truman who authorized the creation of much of the apparatus of the national security state, including both the CIA and the NSA, and it was on his watch that the Attorney General was directed to establish a list of possible subversive organizations.
Using the media to frame the issue and justify such intrusions by our government is also something very old. In my school days one of the nation's best selling books was titled The Enemy Within and was written by that notorious cross-dresser J. Edgar Hoover, a justification of what we ostensibly had to do to protect ourselves from Communist subversion. People of my generation will all remember the FBI show with ZImbalist produced with the cooperation of the Bureau, but many may have forgotten an earlier show entitled "I Led Three Lives", starring Richard Carlson (of such 50's classic films such as the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers - itself an illusion to the "communist threat", was it not?) in the role of Herbert Philbrick, who by then was making a living as a professional anticommunist.
I entitled this diary he way I did because it is a real issue. It is not clear to me if we have the ability to maintain freedom absent an ability to maintain privacy from the government. This is an issue I would like to see addressed by every candidate who seeks my vote. I would want every presidential and senatorial candidate to assure me that they will seekmin every way possible to ensure appropriate oversight of the use of such technology, that they will only appoint and approve of judicial candidates who will commit to the principle that the government must not be allowed to invade privacy and maintain records on people merely because it can. I would want to see similar commitment from all who supervise police, who draft laws. I am not interested in a justification that says if I am not doing anything wrong I have nothing to fear. We know how such information has been misused in the past.
Yes, I suppose I could not use discount cards, cease posting on the internet or doing Google searches or getting driving directions from mapquest. I could pay cash for all my purchases - but even in thelast case there would have to be an electronic record - my paycheck is electronically deposited and my pattern of withdrawals, even though my bank does not charge me more for seeing a teller, would already begin to build a record on me. And think in how many cases we cannot pay in cash, such as payment of taxes (another electronic record). And if we buy a car or anything else costing more than $10,000 a cash transaction must be reported to the Treasury department (on suspicion that we are laundering drug money).
So I ask again as I did in the title - do we still have freedom if we lack privacy?