Washington Post reporter O’Harrow investigates the possibilities of maintaining privacy protections in the wake of increased surveillance after 9/11. At this date, the picture is grim.
“The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon reignited and reshaped a smoldering debate over the proper use of government power to peer into the lives of ordinary people,” he writes. Databases and dossiers, surveillance cameras, biometrics, even “non-invasive neuro-electric sensors”: the information highway meets national insecurity. From Starbucks to the subway to the sidewalk, you are being watched, every electronic transaction recorded. Your personal identification material, your eating and sexual preferences, your family history are all probably on a chip somewhere, easily accessible. Personal data is now a full-blown commodity, bought and sold like sow bellies. Although O’Harrow voices a clear concern over the ethics of such snooping, he concentrates on the nature and tools of data collection, persuasively delineating how that information is abused and how unavoidable mistakes have profound consequences. Exacerbating this problem is the rising incidence of identity theft, thanks to the ease with which databases can be accessed. With visions of COINTELPRO, J. Edgar Hoover, and Joseph McCarthy dancing in his head, O’Harrow is deeply wary of John Ashcroft’s desire to gut the Privacy Act of 1974. He keeps a level tone, never getting frantic, but then he doesn't have to. The horror stories speak for themselves: people whose credit ratings have been destroyed because of foul-ups, people who have been arrested because they happened to have the same name as a criminal, people grilled by security personnel because they fit a certain profile, political activists tagged as “criminal extremists.” In each case, O'Harrow shows, it was a Sisyphean task to get the records set straight—and forget about an apology.
Skillful chart of a surveillance society out of control. The question is: Who will snoop on the snoopers, and what laws will keep them in check?