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The Quiet Assault on Liberty


I woke up in a hotel room in Traverse City, Michigan at about 6am on the morning of June 29, turned on the television, and tuned in to Joe Scarborough. It was immediately apparent that something significant had taken place while I slept, and a moment later I learned that, during the night an apparent car bomb had failed to detonate in London’s theater district.
Little information was known in those first few hours following the discovery and defusing of the unsuccessful attack, but that little information was presented in a continuous loop, with Scarborough and various commentators speculating about the events. It was during this discussion that I heard Scarborough say that because the car remained intact, and because of the presence of closed-circuit surveillance cameras in London’s theater district, it would not be long before sufficient forensic DNA evidence and video imagery would be available to lead police to suspects. After all, the United Kingdom possesses one of the world’s most extensive DNA libraries, and London is among the most CCTV-saturated cities in the world.
The matter-of-factness in Scarborough’s delivery suggested these details were of no particular concern, but his words chilled me. Assuming quick arrests in the UK, how long would it be before well-meaning lawmakers in the US began advocating for the expansion of DNA collections and surveillance networks here?
I’d only have to wait two days for my answer.
On July 1, I read that Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn) was already calling for wider use of surveillance cameras across the country.
I have no doubt that Senator Lieberman, and others like him, have nothing but the best of intentions when they suggest an expansion of surveillance networks here in the US, but have we given much thought to the long-term implications? Have we considered what the effect of more extensive monitoring might be on privacy and liberty?
And while Lieberman calls for an expansion of monitoring capabilities across the country, New York City has found new momentum for its own surveillance camera network following the failed London bombings. According to the New York Times, a system of cameras, license plate readers, and traffic barriers, modeled after London’s “Ring of Steel,” will be in operation by the end of the year. While this and other anti-terror projects were launched to protect citizens against the amorphous threat of terrorism, Washington Technology reports that a recent report issued by the Congressional Research Service shows anti-terror projects are being used not to detect and prevent attacks, but to collect and analyze criminal data instead.
Yet even while states misappropriate Homeland Security funds for the sake of subsidizing local and state law enforcement, Lieberman says of expanding our national surveillance capability, “I think it’s just common sense to do that here much more widely. And of course, we can do it without compromising anybody’s real privacy.”
I’m sorry, Senator, but all evidence points to the contrary.
Before the quiet assault on personal liberty advances one step further, we need to answer a few simple questions: What exactly does “real privacy” mean? What does Senator Lieberman think it means, and is that the same as what you or I think it means? And, ominously, do we want Congress to determine what it means under conditions of high anxiety over a possible terror threat?
Debate still rages over the long-term implications of the Patriot Act and whether, in the aftermath of the September 11 terror attacks, passage of the Patriot Act was the right move for security or a serious encroachment on personal liberty. Let’s not feel pressured to jump to a decision on surveillance and DNA only to suffer under the same burden of regret.

Share  Posted by Mike Spinney at 3:51 PM | Permalink

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