Being Watched

In public spaces in the United States, there is no expectation of privacy (with some caveats, of course). Conversations we have, things we do, while out in the wide-open spaces under the sky are free to be observed and recorded by anyone watching. That’s a little creepy, but something we have grown accustomed to over the years, as security cameras have become ubiquitous.

But, most security cameras are placed by businesses and homeowners to protect their property. What these cameras do not do is track a person’s movement throughout a town or throughout the country. The Department of Homeland Security seems to consider that a flaw. DHS is looking to build a database of license plate numbers and locations using a privately developed tracking system. DHS wants to, in effect, know where every car in the country has been going.

While a person has no expectation that their movements outside of the home are private, that ideal comes from a time when it wasn’t possible to follow the movements of every single car in the United States. When DHS manages to build this database, law enforcement or intelligence services fly surveillance drones, and online communications are stored and mined by the NSA, I have to wonder if a fundamental shift in the way our government treats its citizens has taken place.

We have always had freedom of movement in this country. While inside our borders, there is nothing stopping anyone from traveling from one end of this vast country to the other. There are no internal security checkpoints (except at airports, of course). There are no internal passports. There is no one in a uniform who wants to know why you would want to go from point A to point B. One can cross from Ohio into Indiana, say, and all that marks the passage is a sign welcoming a person to the state. We are free.

But how free are we if we’re always being watched? How free can we be if our government feels the need to keep constant tabs on us, in case we might be doing something wrong?

It’s known that being watched changes a person’s behavior. It makes a person more likely to be civil, and less likely to commit a crime. These changes alone would seem to settle any debate about whether surveillance is good. But, constantly being watched means constantly having to prove to the watchers that a person is not up to anything bad. It places a burden of proof on the observed that is untenable in a free society. And it causes anxiety.

It’s a tiny, nagging feeling, but any time I am about to walk through anti-theft sensors in a store, I feel a sense of worry that they are about to go off, that they are going to sound the alarm and accuse me of being a thief. I’ve never shoplifted in my life, but the very presence of those sensors makes me feel like I’ve done something wrong. Cover the nation with surveillance, and there is no longer any place I, or anyone else, can go without feeling accused of being a bad person. That is not freedom.

While surveillance seems like a passive violation of freedom, once surveillance becomes total and data analyzed effectively, the next step is active intervention. That is, not just watching what people do, but directing them to and fro, admonishing the citizenry from places unseen and unknowable.

This is a nightmare scenario, but not one I find to be all that unlikely. Liberties, once established, are subject to erosion, in a continual process that can rob a society of its freedoms before anyone notices they are gone. Our loss of freedom, unlike in other states, has not been in service to creating a more dominant central government. In this country, the idea that the state is more important than the people is laughable. Instead, we erode our freedoms in the name of protecting ourselves. A dominant central government is a side effect of these efforts. Unfortunately, no one has yet figured out how to curtail freedom without empowering government, making them, and not the people, the arbiters of freedom.

More than anything else about our government, I worry that their sense of isolated self-importance leads them to discount the effects of their daily dramas on the American people. We do live in a dangerous world that requires vigilance to keep the people safe, but we always have. A proper balance between security and civil liberties has not been struck. Instead, the surveillance state is a behemoth that threatens to consume American freedom whole.