Something New Under the Sun
By Fred Reed
Clearing House" ----
The pieces come together.
Within the last week I have read:
1) New software, associated with Google, will recognize
customers in stores so as to offer them discounts; having your
photos uploaded to allow this service will (for now) be
2) A new surveillance system in New York will store footage from
cameras in, for example, the subway, so that when an unattended
package is discovered, the police can look back in time to see
who left it.
3) TSA is perfecting a laser that will allow detection on
travelers of trace amounts of drugs, explosives, and doubtless a
wide variety of other things.
4) The government is moving toward mandating black boxes on cars
to record information thought to be useful in ascribing blame in
5) Various police departments are beginning to use “drone”
aircraft to monitor the population.
These are recent pieces of the coming world. They have not yet
all been completely deployed and linked. Some are voluntary, for
the moment. Others are in development. All are coming.
Add the now-routine tracking of passports, cameras that read
every passing license plate and record the time, NSA’s automated
monitoring of email, Google’s and therefore the government’s
knowledge of your searches, GPS tracking of cell phones,
detailed records of bank transactions, and so on. Not all of
these are instantly accessible by the police. They can easily be
made accessible, and they move in that direction.
In short, the technology exists for a detailed, unblinking,
unforgetting watchfulness of the entire population beyond
anything imagined, or perhaps imaginable, a few decades ago.
This is not Fred-drank-too-much-coffee. It is happening.
The capacity of hard drives is now essentially without limit,
the power of computers to sort and search infinite, and the
speed of the internet no longer a bound. Almost microscopic
cameras, wireless concealable microphones, face recognition,
voice recognition, recording GPS: You can buy all of this in
consumer stores. The government has far better.
People speak of the onrush of the police state. I think that
many do not understand how fast it comes, or how thorough it
The political framework falls rapidly into place. Few or no
safeguards exist, and probably few are possible. A growing
authoritarianism rapidly erodes what protections we had. The
courts allow random searches of passengers of trains and subways
without probable cause. Warrantless tapping of personal
communications is rampant, or done with secret warrants from a
secret federal judge. TSA has Viper squads that stop cars at
random for searches. In many places it is against the law to
video the police, who everywhere become more militarized and
less accountable. For practical purposes, citizens have no
At a higher level of generality, America is no longer a
democracy. If you think this a rash assertion, ask yourself
whether you have the slightest influence over policies that
matter to you. Suppose that you want to end the wars, shrink the
military, end affirmative action, genuinely change education, or
reform a hostile and unworkable bureaucracy. Who do you vote
for? Important policies are made in faceless bureaucracies
immune to public influence. National politics employs a sort of
political price-fixing, in which you are permitted to choose
among a number on indistinguishable candidates and told that you
are having an election.
None of this is going to stop.
Why is it happening? Some suspect a vast conspiracy to Sovietize
the country. I doubt it. Don’t look for a conspiracy when human
nature is an adequate explanation. Presidents never want to
suffer the restraints on constitutionality, the agonizing
slowness of a congress that often has little understanding of
the issues; if presidents can do things by fiat, or secretly,
We have now had twoconsecutive presidents with less than normal
respect for the constitution, one a brown Plantagenet but with
little grounding in European civilization, the other a
privileged rich brat of limited intellect and schooling. Such as
they will take any shortcut they can get away with, and there is
no longer anyone to tell them no.
Men grab power when they can. Once grabbed, it stays grabbed. A
police operation like DHS will always try to grow. People in
power always think they know best. When a federal department has
money, industry rushes to sell it things. In the case of TSA,
this means new and more advanced scanners, then upgrades, and
maintenance contracts, training contracts, and then a new kind
of scanner, and the process repeats.
The people doing all of this are not thinking of installing
totalitarianism. They are thinking dollars, promotions, power,
ego, and perks.
The FBI? NSA? Federal officials in general? They know best. They
are, they think, just fighting crime, terrorism, maintaining
national security, what have you, and the more power they have,
they better they can do this. Further, intimidating people is
pleasurable. If citizens have nothing to hide, say all these
cops, they have nothing to fear. If you torture terrorists, or
those you think may be terrorists, well, the real world is like
that. Do you want more terrorism?
A conspiracy would be preferable. You can crush a conspiracy.
Human nature, which inherently drifts toward corruption, is a
far tougher nut.
What difference will it make to live in a country in which the
government knows everything whatever about everybody, and few
safeguards against abuse exist? For most people, at first,
probably not much. At first. But for people the government
doesn’t like, a lot. Reporerters, writers, whistle-blowers,
And we are all vulnerable. Knowledge, as someone said, is power.
Few of us have spotless lives, or want them. Did you once check
into a cheap motel with someone else’s spouse or a lady of the
night? What do the porn sites you visit say about you? If you
are, say, a politician, do you want these things to come out?
Have you written compromising emails about shady deductions on
your taxes, or about your boss (“a weasely dickhead and probably
a latent girly-boy”)? You have bar bills or liquor purchases of
$300 a week? What if you show positive on a marijuana scan at
the airport, which becomes justification for a full search of
your house, or dismissal from work?
Things have already reached the point at which writers of my
acquaintance, who do not have the power of the Washington Post
behind them, have stopped criticizing the government. Whether
they are in fact in any danger of persecution—I don’t think they
much are yet—almost doesn’t matter. The mere knowledge that your
email can be read is intimidating, like being closely followed
by a police car even when you are doing nothing wrong. We are
daily being followed by more police cars, both literal and
Biography: As He Tells It -Fred, a keyboard mercenary with a
disorganized past, has worked on staff for Army Times, The
Washingtonian, Soldier of Fortune, Federal Computer Week, and
The Washington Times.
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