TCS Daily

'Watching the Detectives'

By Sonia Arrison - August 15, 2002 12:00 AM

In the new movie Triple X, the National Security Agency hands Xander Cage, a punk turned government agent, x-ray binoculars that let him see through objects, including the clothes of a nearby woman. While humorous in the movies, actual government use of spy ware raises serious issues that a new bill hopes to address.

The Security and Liberty Preservation Act, sponsored by Senator John Edwards (D-N.C.), would create a temporary 17-member commission to study government use of new surveillance technologies such as video cameras, face recognition technologies, Internet surveillance, and other investigative tools. The commission, with the power of subpoena, would report to Congress 18 months after its first meeting.

Government use of gadgets has proliferated, especially since 9/11, without much public debate. The USA Patriot Act, for instance, was rushed through Congress with remarkable speed. Among other things, the Act expanded the use of Carnivore, a controversial e-mail wiretapping system that may violate civil liberties by over-collecting data. Video surveillance cameras and face recognition technology have also become ubiquitous.

Last year, a survey by the International Association of Chiefs of Police found that 80 percent of police departments use video monitoring. Whether a meeting at the Lincoln Memorial or a day of sun soaking at Santa Monica beach, electronic eyes just might be reading your lips.

Face recognition technologies, like the system unveiled last month at Virginia Beach, put people in virtual line-ups, comparing their faces with those of known criminals or missing persons. And now, new technology in the test phase at Florida's Orlando airport lets Uncle Sam see you naked too.

The Federal Aviation Administration is currently testing the Rapiscan Secure 1000, a human-sized x-ray machine that conducts a virtual strip search. One need only visit Rapiscan's web page to see the explicit image detail, which reveals that they should perhaps have used a different model.

Virtual frisks, video cameras, and Internet surveillance might give law enforcement an edge in finding and prosecuting crime, but those powers can be abused. Recall how Martin Luther King Jr., John Lennon, and others became targets of illegal government surveillance by J. Edgar Hoover's FBI. And it's not necessary to go all the way back to the 1960s to find abuses.

In 1998, the Los Angeles Police Department used illegal wiretaps to monitor citizens, collect evidence illegally, and invade privacy. The number of innocent people illegally wiretapped is unknown but it likely is in the thousands.

But the increase in threats to America's security has created a dilemma for those concerned with civil liberties. New technologies might open the door for more abuse, but the heightened need for security calls for all tools to be deployed. This seems to be an impossible predicament, but there may be a solution: watch the watchers.

In the Transparent Society, writer David Brin argues that the best way to prevent government from abusing surveillance technology is to keep the government itself under surveillance. This makes some sense: consider that in George Orwell's 1984, the state had a monopoly on surveillance technologies. If the citizens possessed similar technology, the story line would have been much different. Already, Americans have seen practical examples of this idea.

In California's Orange County, where video cameras were installed in patrol cars to protect against false accusations of excessive force, the tapes have been used to prosecute abusive police officers. This idea of two-way surveillance is appealing but faces some hurdles.

Government agencies like the FBI will argue that their activities need to be secret and most Americans will agree with them - at least for now. If it's politically impossible to monitor agencies like the FBI with technology, then another way must be found to enforce accountability. Senator Edwards's proposed commission is a step in that direction.

A bureaucratic commission is admittedly a less efficient way to move towards greater accountability by government agencies, but it's better than nothing. A commission that holds public meetings to discuss government surveillance techniques can help inform Americans of the huge potential for abuse and recommend standards for proper behavior, while still allowing law enforcement access to new tools.

Sonia Arrison is director of the Center for Technology Studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute

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