Sunday, September 27, 2009

Smile, You're on Candid Camera

Scott Hensen, at Grits for Breakfast, has a post about the FBI's plans to develop a database which will, basically, contain every imagineable identifier - fingerprints, DNA, voice prints, iris scans, you name it. It's mighty frightening. The lessons of history teach us two things about collected data: (1) it will be compromised; (2) it will be used in ways we've been assured it won't be. In the case of this sort of data, there's a third certainty: It will be riddled with mistakes that result in appalling injustices.

Scott has a handle on all that. He knows that we live in what the ACLU has called a "surveillance society" (see here and here) and that we can try to stem the tide of data collection and distribution but we really can't stop it. A comment by the prolific commentator Anonymous offers an alternative: hide from it.

It's appropriate, of course, that the commentator who favors personal privacy should conceal his or her identity. But it's also beside my point. Here's the relevant (for my purposes here) part of what Anonymous had to say:
There's a lovely little town in nowhere Panama where most places still operate on a cash only basis and while I can get a nice Internet connection, no one wants my shopping history, taps my phone, wants my personal banking records, records me walking down the street or wants my blood and DNA. I'm looking forward to a retirement as an expatriate more and more.
I don't know which particular bit of nowhere in Panama it is of which Anonymous speaks. There's certainly no shortage of nowhere in Panama, and it may be every bit as idyllic as Nony says. (Hey, I'm getting tired of typing the whole thing, we should be comfortable with shortcut nicknames by now.) But you know, my limited experience of Central America suggests that the idyll may not be so pure.

First, technology advances. If you've got the internet, you've soon got Interpol. There's plenty of snooping, it's just a different sort than we find in big cities here in the States. There's little need for red light cameras where there are no red lights. (Though I did once get rousted and extorted by a cop for allegedly speeding on the Pan American Highway.)

Second, the right to be left alone comes with a price.

When I was in Central America in the mid 90s, I was struck by the ubiquitous presence of armed guards. Every McDonald's had a kid in a paramalitary uniform carrying an automatic weapon. And I mean kid. The average age of armed security in the fast food places looked to be about 16. The miracle is that more people didn't get killed.

When I was in Central America a couple of years ago, I found that, along with all the armed kids guarding businesses and directing traffic, the entire landscape was now bound with concertina wire. Every home, every business. Mansions and shanties.

The idea is to make you secure - certainly to make you feel secure. But you know, at least for this gringo it didn't work.

Oh, it may be safer to be behind barbed wire. But when you're inside it feels just too damn much like being in a prison (a very nice prison, perhaps, but a prison). And when you're outside, it's just a constant reminder that there's danger everywhere - and you can't count on a neighbor for help because the neighbor is hidden away behind his barricades. And you can't count on law enforcement for help, because if you could, there wouldn't be any need for the security.

I don't think it's an either/or. The push is for both.

There are plenty of gated communities in this country and the people who live in them are probably among the folks agitating most energetically for more government surveillance - and more concertina wire for themselves. That internet cafe in Panama probably has a kid with an Uzi on patrol, and I'd bet they're tracking every web site you visit.

If the Nigerian scamorama artists can track you down (and they can track all of us down, I'm sorry to say), so can the FBI. And if they aren't doing it today, they'll be doing it tomorrow.

1984? Brave New World? Maybe it's just your supermarket club card.

But they know what you've been doing. They always do. Always.

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