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Friday, July 5, 2013


“Just because you’re paranoid don’t mean they’re not after you”

To see more cartoons by Andy Singer, click here
By Will Collette

Right after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, in a state of shock but vowing “we will never let the terrorists win,” we surrendered an extraordinary amount of our civil liberties, especially the right to privacy, radically changed our way of life, spent billions of dollars on bad wars and marginally useful surveillance technology.

We passed the misnamed Patriot Act, misnamed because its provisions would have made the patriots who founded this country want to start a second Revolution. And we never admitted that, for the suicide deaths of the four 9/11 hijackers, Al Qaeda got far, far more than they had ever dreamed of.

Twelve years later, we’re now starting to look back and ask, “OMG, what have we done?” Yep, that’s the right question. And the follow-up question is what can and should we do to restore those freedoms that we voluntarily gave up to “do our bit” in the ridiculous “Global War on Terrorism.”

Privacy issues are now all around us, at every level. Even here in Charlestown, it shows itself in the concerns some have over the imminent installation of red light cameras to bust drivers who run through one of our four Route One red lights. It came up last year, when Charlestown Town Councilor Deputy Dan Slattery (CCA Party) proposed a tax relief program for distressed homeowners that would require applicants to turn over all of their private financial information to the town and publicly tell their reasons for needing tax relief in a public setting[1].

At the state level, Rep. Teresa Tanzi (D-Peacedale, Wakefield and Narragansett) proposed legislation to set limits and regulations on the use of drones by Rhode Island police agencies. The FBI has just admitted that they are already using surveillance drones within the US.

Do you have a right to privacy when you run a red light?
Recently, the Providence Journal ran a Page-One “expose” on the array of 48 surveillance cameras positioned all along the length of Narragansett Bay, paid for by Homeland Security funding, to keep track on all activities allow the shipping channels.

And of course at the national level, there is the daily revelation of more and more ways that Americans are being watched by the federal government. We act as if this was something new, something unexpected. We forget that we asked for this after 9/11 and overwhelmingly supported it

Until we realized that to watch everyone and everything means that we place ourselves under scrutiny, too. And with virtually no limits.

In prior articles on red light cameras and Teresa Tanzi’s drone legislation, I have admitted my own ambivalence about the subject of privacy. Like most rights and privileges, it is not absolute. As several Supreme Court justices have noted in their decisions, the Constitution, including the Bill of Rights, is not a suicide pact so individual liberties are always weighed against the public interest.

For more cartoons by P.S. Mueller, click here
As much as we rankle at the thought of the government intruding into our personal communications, as a nation, we already give away an amazing amount of information about ourselves.

Indeed, our own choices in the use of technology (smart phones, credit cards, ATM machines, the internet, e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, store discount cards) actually represent a willful, though probably unthinking, decision to put ourselves under scrutiny. 

You would know that if you actually read those “Terms of Service” agreements each of these technologies require you to sign before you can use them. But I admit I don't and, even if I did, I would probably choose to give up some privacy to have access to the goods and services.

When you register to use a website, or fill out a survey or questionnaire  you are yielding your privacy and allowing private businesses extraordinary access to your personal information. 

When you apply for a drivers’ license and have your picture taken, your face joins 120 million others in a national database that law enforcement can use to find persons of interest in criminal cases. Using facial recognition software, the task of sifting through this huge database has become quite routine.

Check out this photo (thanks, Bob). By clicking on the image, you will be able to see each individual in this vast crowd with amazing resolution. How many of the people at this event thought this would be possible? Pretty amazing.

There has always been a difference in the amount of privacy you are entitled to have when you are in your own home or when you are in public. That’s one reason why I have no privacy concerns about red light cameras or CCTV coverage of public places. I have no expectation of privacy when I’m driving down Route One or walking down the street.

Indeed, I listed a number of positive uses we could make of drone technology right here in Charlestown (not a joke) including helping our firefighters spot and scope out fires in the woods, helping police find lost children or elders, helping lifeguards to protect beach goers and even help to deliver food and beverage at our festivals and concerts.

Sushi drone - operational in London
Domino’s is planning drone-delivered pizza and in London, a Japanese restaurant has already deployed sushi-drones.

Expect a massive expansion of the number of drones and types of uses between now and 2015 when the FAA will be opening up the skies to more uses. There are already a significant number of license holders in the US for domestic drone use[2].

It bothers a lot of people – including me – to know the government has been monitoring our communications for years and with advances in technology, that surveillance has intensified. I think we all understand that phone companies and internet service providers collect and store our usage information and that, with a warrant, that information can be turned over to law enforcement.

What Americans seemed to have overlooked post-9/11 is that we acquiesced to giving the government access to just about everything, in the name of security. I felt it was a bad idea then and it’s still a bad idea, not to mention contrary to the US Constitution’s Fourth Amendment protection against illegal searches and seizures.

What we don’t know – and what the government can’t tell us – is whether our wholesale surrender of civil liberties was worth it. The NSA claims that its mammoth data collection program has blocked 50 acts of terrorism, but of course, they can’t say more than that.

For all of the phone and internet traffic intercepted by the TSA, we missed
these guys, the ones the system was designed to stop
What some pundits have noted is that for all its vast amounts of harvested data and unimaginable technological capacity, our intelligence system missed the two idiot Boston Bomber brothers whose electronic footprints were pretty obvious. At least in hindsight. 

But the Boston Bombers are such a major gaffe that it really does call into question what the hell the NSA, CIA, FBI and other agencies who are so eagerly collecting data actually do with it[3].

Unless I am misunderstanding all of the explanations and rationales given for PRISM and the other intelligence programs gathering private records, the Tsarnaev brothers were exactly the kind of threat the program was supposed to detect.

Oddly, another rather low-key intelligence gathering program scored a conspicuous recent success. I think we’ve always understood that our mail is subject to scrutiny. I’m sure that back in World War I, if any local person received a letter from Uncle Otto in Germany, the local postmaster probably let the local authorities know. 

These days, the Postal Service uses a high-tech system, the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking (MICT), to capture an image of every single piece of mail it processes and stores and evaluates this data in a sophisticated computer system.

This system was responsible for the arrest and indictment of the Texas woman, actress Shannon Richardson, who allegedly sent Ricin-tainted letters to President Obama and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. 

Which is fine. But the time is right for a far-reaching and comprehensive national debate about the issues of privacy. I almost said “before it’s too late,” but many would argue that we’ve already gone way too far in compromising privacy and personal freedom for the sake of security.

Before getting ensnared by the flood of revelations about NSA snooping, President Obama took a first good step by declaring that the so-called global war on terrorism is over. I wish he had said it never really existed, but that’s a more involved discussion. 

With the end of that “war,” we need to rethink and readjust to the more realistic problem of dealing with specific foreign enemies and specific domestic criminal threats.

I hope we can arrive at a national consensus that puts us back under the protection of the Fourth Amendment while also allowing us the opportunities and benefits of new technologies[4].


[1] Sixteen months ago, on April 9, 2012, the CCA majority on the Town Council voted to direct Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero to come up with ordinance language to put Slattery’s horrific scheme into place. That was the last that was ever heard of it.

[2] Low level drone use is fine, otherwise kids would not be allowed to use radio-controlled airplanes. The FAA licenses will be for uses at higher elevations where commercial aviation currently takes precedence.

[3] After the bombing, we were all treated to a display of the wide array of electronic resources the government can bring to bear in criminal investigations including the cameras that allowed police to spot the younger brother hiding in the bottom of a boat.

[4] Balance is key. In one city, Iowa City, Iowa, the city is in the process of pre-emptively banning ALL electronic surveillance devices, and specifically red light cameras, surveillance cameras and drones. I had never thought of Iowa City as a bastion for civil liberties. In their zeal, it seems to me they might actually cause more harm than good.