The Surveillance Fantasies of the New Millennium Became Our Reality



Gizmodo is 20 years old! To celebrate the anniversary, we’re looking back at some of the most significant ways our lives have been thrown for a loop by our digital tools.

The year was 1998. Robert Dean, a labor lawyer based in Washington D.C., was out shopping for some lingerie. His life was about to be turned upside down by a chance encounter with an old classmate. He’d come into possession of some sensitive surveillance material desperately sought after by rogue government agents, footage that would prove radioactive to everyone in his life. Within days, Dean’s marriage and his professional credibility would be destroyed, and one of his oldest friends would be found dead. Dean went on the run, but soon he was hunted. With unlimited access to the world’s most sensitive surveillance equipment, government spies tracked him from D.C. to Baltimore, going as far as to commandeer a spy satellite. They had one goal: kill Dean and retrieve the footage at all costs.

Enemy of the State (Will Smith, Gene Hackman) was a film well received by most critics, though its portrayal of the U.S. government’s surveillance capabilities was viewed by nearly everyone as hokey, if not basically science fiction. The film preyed, a review in the Washington Post said, on the “fear and mistrust” Americans felt toward “Big Brother” — a paranoia that helped the Bruckheimer-Scott production team suspend the disbelief of their audience, even as it exaggerated the technological achievements of the day to a Phildickian proportions. It wasn’t necessarily the overblown use of keyhole satellites or electronic wiretaps directly that made all this spycraft seem preposterous. It was the degree of omniscience these tools seemed to bestow on the film’s cartoonishly sociopathic agents; the ability to effortlessly track the movements of any basically anyone across virtually any distance. These agents could finger Smith’s location at almost any time, down to what floor of a building he was on. They could instantly tap any phone he picked up and any camera he carelessly wandered in front of. “What does that mean?” Smith’s at-first oblivious character screams in frustration. “It means the NSA can read the time off your fucking watch,” Hackman tells him.

When Enemy of the State debuted, only around 16 percent of Americans carried cellphones. The personal computer market had only penetrated around a third of U.S. households. Electronic mail was practically a novelty outside of major companies and well-funded universities. But this was destined to change within a handful of years. With it, the government’s appetite for tracking and intercepting private conversations both at home and abroad would grow. After Sept. 11, 2001, Congress quickly bestowed the federal government with a sweeping range of surveillance authorities, greatly inflating the exceptions to the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee against “unreasonable searches and seizures.” A careen toward nationalism, confusion and fear, and dreams of retribution combined with dramatic advancements in technology to turn the United States into a veritable surveillance state. Slowly but surely, the government began to avail itself of vast databases containing billions of records that detailed when and where virtually all domestic phone calls were placed. Those connecting beyond U.S. shores were wiretapped at an unprecedented scale. The tools and techniques it developed often required the support and discretion of American businesses. Opposition to the pursuit of total surveillance was framed by the White House as equaling support for the terrorist’s agenda. Fear of being tagged as responsible for the next attack kept most dissenters at bay.

The ability to spontaneously determine a random person’s precise location anywhere in the country, or even within the confines of a single city, was pure science fiction at the start of the millennium. This was a 24th Century capability bestowed through the use of advanced “sensors” aboard the starship Enterprise. It was a superpower of Professor X, on par with an ability to thoughts. Yet the fact that we associated this ability with superheroes and space men isn’t sign of our naivete about the possibilities of the future that was bearing down upon us. It’s a reflection of how secure we felt in our own privacy. Our own ability to move about homes, neighborhoods, and communities unobserved. It’s a reflection of people whose sense of privacy wasn’t complicated by menial tasks like ordering a pizza, sharing a photo, or calling a taxi. Today we understand that even in our own homes, the devices around us are constantly collecting information about where we are and what we’re doing; data that can be exploited by people we’ve never met, right away or maybe years down the line.

From the turn of the century, Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report is another acclaimed film with an outsized impact on what people thought about the future of surveillance tech. And it remains relevant. It’s constantly brought up in the context of today’s flawed predictive policing initiatives. Alongside the ability to forecast murders—a technology which is likely never to exist—it gave us a look at what life might be like if, every time we walked outside, there were machines constantly scanning our faces. In one scene, a fugitive Tom Cruise steps into a mall where he’s instantly identified by numerous holographic billboards. “The road you’re on, John Anderton, is the one less traveled,” a voice whispers, as Cruise tries and fails to be inconspicuous. The film’s use of facial recognition was not as enormous a leap as it probably seemed to theatergoers. DARPA, the Pentagon’s research and development branch, and NIST, a scientific agency charged with standardizing measurements and controls for technology, were both in the process of advancing facial recognition tools at the time–primarily to be used in the government’s flailing war on drugs.

As is invariably the case, the government’s desire for unfettered access to greater surveillance powers resulted in almost no efforts being made to shield ordinary citizens from the perils of biased AIs and glitchy facial scanning software. Privacy-invasive technology is nearly always developed under the pretense of public safety, but inevitably finds its way into the arsenals of private companies motivated purely by profit. Profit, in turn, becomes the justification for never advancing privacy legislation in Congress. Any bills with the hope of protecting ordinary people’s privacy are always DOA (that’s “dead on arrival”). Once internet companies realized that cataloging the most intimate details of their customers’ lives was not only perfectly legal, but highly lucrative, there was no turning back. And like a snake swallowing its own tail, the government has begun to realize that there’s no law really preventing it from buying data from private companies using the technology it helps to create. This seems to be the case even if an electronic warrant would normally be required to obtain the same data directly, begging the question: why bother with a warrant at all? Even the most ambitious, if undoubtedly doomed, privacy proposals seem to avoid addressing this particular issue, since most of these arrangements remain secret or classified.

The word “privacy” itself has been rendered effectively meaningless since Spielberg first showed us how far one might have to go to avoid a city full of inescapable retinal scanners (answer: ripping your own eyes out). Before the 21st Century, the term referred to someone existing, if only momentarily, in a state free from external observation or disturbance. Whatever the dictionary says now, that’s clearly no longer the case. A “privacy policy” is not a document describing how a company will protect human information; it’s a list of all the ways it intends to exploit it.

Many people alive today went about for decades without a government or a corporation knowing exactly where they were at all times. But they’re a dying breed. By the time most adolescents reach adulthood today, their whereabouts will be monitored at frequent and regular intervals–a fate once reserved for ex-cons equipped with electronic tracking bracelets–until the day they die.

It’s difficult to know what effects living under a surveillance state will eventually have on the ways we interact with each other and the world. Even in public spaces, people have always been able to move about confident they aren’t constantly being recorded. A child riding bicycle up and down their own street today is likely to be recorded by dozens of camera. Images of their faces traverse networks of companies with deep government ties. Every single doorbell is a potential microphone picking up their voice, from the sidewalk, the street, or even the porch next door.

In her 2015 book Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness, author Simone Browne offers up as an antecedent to this new circumstance the realities faced by fugitives and slaves moving about on New York City streets more than two hundred years ago. Being “constantly illuminated,” one begins to internalize an expectation of being watched, she says, resulting in a kind of “performative sensibility.” “What I am suggesting is that for the fugitive in eighteenth-century New York, such a sensibility would encourage one to perform–in this case perform freedom–even when one was not sure of one’s audience.” The term “illuminated” carries both a figurative and literal meaning, referring not only to a person being denied the right to move about in relative obscurity, but so-called “lantern laws,” which required Black and Native American slaves to carry lit candles after dark wherever they went.

What effect will the ceaseless surveillance of public spaces have on future generations—and will they hate us for creating this problem? Will people eventually lose touch with the idea that their own behavior has become performative; that, without continual monitoring, they might choose to speak or behave or associate, perhaps even think or use their imaginations differently? Or will they simply live with the knowledge that privacy is something that once existed but was killed off by their ancestors, performing privacy while being haunted by its ghost?

#Surveillance #Fantasies #Millennium #Reality



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here