Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Who's watching the watchers?

Part of the aggressive erosion of our civil rights under the Bush administration is the transformation of our country into a panopticon, utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham's conception of the perfect prison where prisoners could be under constant surveillance. In other words, more strides down the slippery slope towards (more fully) becoming a police state.

  • Akhil Reed Amar and Vikram David Amar discuss the 4th Amendment implications of Attorney General John Ashcroft's expansion of the FBI's authority to surveil Americans in public venues such as open Internet chat rooms, political rallies, and houses of worship:
    The Fourth Amendment helps identify what is sensible and what is problematic about Ashcroft's new policy. In turn, Ashcroft's regulation helps identify what is sensible and what is problematic about the Supreme Court's Fourth Amendment caselaw. Read more
  • Ian Walsh of The Blogging of the President writes about Boston's new surveillance cameras...that will still be there long after the DNC circus has left town.

  • EPIC, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, has a wealth of resources on surveillance, including the American government's surveillance and disruption of peaceable protest:
    The United States has a distinctive history of protest, which has helped to shape many of the values we hold today. The Independence movement, the Women's Suffrage movement, and the Civil Rights movement all gained strength through various forms of protest. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution preserves free expression and "the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." These rights are necessary to ensure the effective functioning of democracy. Today, as protest continues to play a vital role in the social and political landscape of the United States, the right is endangered by a "system of public surveillance," particularly in Nation's capital.
  • The ACLU points out that what's wrong with Public Video Surveillance is the lack of proportion between benefits and risks.

  • If you still can't see the problem, take a look at the ACLU's case study of the FBI's surveillance of Martin Luther King or read James Campbell's article in Granta 73 on how the FBI did the same thing to James Baldwin and destroyed his life.


  • Ironically, my home town has been the center of the battle over public surveillance in Canada. Privacy Commissioner George Radwanski has been fighting to have the Royal Canadian Mounted Police remove a video camera from downtown Kelowna on the grounds that it intrudes on citizen privacy--and his campaign lead to Canada outlawing public surveillance cameras entirely. Read the story in my hometown paper and in Wired. These stories are dated but I'm trying to track down more current information.

    Here are some of the other people who are watching the watchers:

  • Michael Naimark shows you how to disable CCTV's using a hand-held laser, like the kinds on keychains. (Okay, I guess that constitutes "phreaking the watchers" more than "watching the watchers".)

  • And the ACLU is out there, as usual, running several campaigns to fight for our privacy in the face of these attacks.


  • Public surveillance is one of those civil liberties battles that is so readily deflated by the question, "but you don't need to worry because you don't have anything to hide...do you?" But we do need to worry. And we need to fight back while we can.
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