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Our Surveillance Nation

From the editor.

Big Brother is watching you. So are little sister, the neighbors, your boss, and mom and pop. And it’s more and more likely that you’re watching them too.

If there’s a message to this month’s cover story on our transformation into a surveillance society, it’s that we are all responsible.

It is precisely this mass participation in surveillance-along with the difficulty of assigning sole responsibility to insidious corporate and government entities-that makes this story so compelling. Even more compelling-and sobering-is that we are losing our privacy not for some nefarious purpose but for the best of reasons: safety, security, and generally improved quality of life. Indeed, surveillance cameras in public spaces, parking garages, and around our neighborhoods can deter crime and speed its solution. Cameras keep tabs even on the police themselves-helping avert the next Rodney King incident. Video cameras, linked to the Web, let us check traffic, and they offer the peace of mind that comes from seeing our kids having fun at home or preschool while we’re at work. And video cameras are just the most conspicuous component of the rapidly propagating surveillance infrastructure: at more and more schools, Internet usage is monitored to ensure students don’t visit pornography sites; similar systems watch over employees to guard against illicit actions and possibly against harassment, sexual or otherwise. These and other kinds of monitoring can make our lives easier and safer.

This story is part of our April 2003 Issue
See the rest of the issue

And that, ironically, is what makes ubiquitous surveillance so dangerous. We have put ourselves in a position where even though the motivations are good, the outcome could be chillingly bad. Not only governments, but also private groups and individuals, have real opportunities to amass an unprecedented amount of information about each of us-the people with whom we have associated, what we have bought, where we’ve been, maybe even where we are. Such data, gathered for seemingly benign reasons, could nonetheless be used for suppression of free speech, idea control, and (shades of the movie Minority Report) to finger people for some future crime-purposes that rumble the foundations of free societies.

The story is so big that TR is bringing it to you in two parts. This month’s piece covers the total landscape. It opens with routine traffic-watching webcams placed in an area of roadway construction in western Massachusetts; extends to other forms of electronic surveillance for monitoring consumers, employees, and schoolchildren; and ends with the technical dangers-large and small-inherent in massive data-collection and surveillance efforts. Next month’s story will focus on what can be done to navigate the perils of this unfolding reality and how technology is central not only to addressing the problem but also to ensuring that the surveillance society is contained.

We are fortunate in having two writers uniquely qualified to tell this story. TR contributing writer Charles C. Mann is a well-known journalist whose last piece for us was the July/August 2002 cover story, “Why Software Is So Bad.” His coauthor is legendary software engineer Dan Farmer, former chief of network security for Sun Microsystems, Silicon Graphics, and Earthlink. Farmer has advised Congress on privacy and security in the Internet age. But he is best known for authoring, along with Dutch computer scientist Wietse Venema, a controversial program called SATAN, which searched computer networks for security holes and other information. Critics charged that by making SATAN easy-to-use and free to everyone, its authors had given even amateur hackers tools to crack corporate and government networks. Farmer says the program alerted the good guys to a big problem.

But back to that snarled western Massachusetts traffic. The story begins with eight webcams that let motorists and rescue workers check traffic and avoid congestion. But hidden in this network of nicety is a potential catch…

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