John Foreman: Government's long arm can reach into any corner

John Foreman: Government's long arm can reach into any corner

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, homes, papers and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated

— The Fourth Amendment, U.S. Constitution

I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.

— James Madison

Government is not reason; it is not eloquence; it is force, like fire, a troublesome servant and a fearful master.

— George Washington

It is clear beyond any doubt how those who formed this country felt about the size and power of government. Had they experienced one of the breadth and power now on display, the revolution would have started a lot sooner.

Yet many Americans now, content in the idea that benevolent authority will care for them, seem remarkably untroubled by it. How times change.

If Madison and Washington and the like were wrong — if government was universally benevolent — perhaps there would be no reason for concern when officials seize massive amounts of previously private phone records (and who knows what else) to monitor. But governments are people, and people in power prove time and again they are not above mischief — or worse.

Do we really need to be reminded of this so soon after learning that agents of the IRS (supposedly gone rogue) abused their power to thwart the formation of groups critical of the government? Have we forgotten that at least one previous president used the IRS to attack his political enemies and that more than one collected intimate personal information for purposes of discrediting those they saw as a threat?

We now know that our government collects and reviews records of everyone we call. We know that other massive private databases maintain records of everything we read, visit or buy on the Internet. One private company boasts detailed information on 190 million Americans. And no one need open our mail, we correspond electronically, too.

Nothing is secret, and nothing, it would seem, is beyond the reach of Washington's "fearful master."

I believe we will come to see that the disclosures of the last two weeks have barely scratched the surface of what government has the capability — and now the excuse — to monitor.

Nearly a year ago, long before the current revelations of government snooping made headlines, a reader called my attention to a fascinating and troublesome article written by Michael Snyder and published on a business website called the Market Daily News. I dismissed them than as overly alarmist, despite the apparent credibility of the retired history professor who forwarded the article to me and of the author, a widely published Florida attorney.

Snyder was extolling no less than 19 technologies and practices our government has available to spy on it citizens. Since then, public disclosures have confirmed several of them. A little fact checking on my part the last two weeks establishes a clear basis for some of the others.

If you can continue to believe that "1984" is not real, I envy your carefree spirit.

Apart from the surveillance claiming so much attention just now, Snyder discussed government use of unmanned spy drones to monitor Americans for reasons in no way related to terrorism. This, too, has since proved not to be conjecture.

He detailed software called "Voice Grid Nation," developed in Russia and marketed in the United States by a company called SpeechPro as a forensic tool for law enforcement agencies. It is capable, the company says, of storing and analyzing millions of voices and scanning thousands per second to identify an unnamed speaker.

High-tech scanners exist that are capable of doing a full body scan from 164 feet away. A company named In-Q-Tel has contracted with the federal government on the technology. In-Q-Tel acknowledges that it "identifies, adapts and delivers innovative technology solutions to support the mission of the Central Intelligence Agency and broader U.S. intelligence community." Another company boasts a mobile van capable of broadcasting "backscatter" radiation of the sort that has caused on uproar in airport security use.

Information collected for more benign intentions offers tremendous opportunities in the hands of government snoops. The DNA of virtually every newborn in the United States, for example, is collected and tested soon after birth for scientific reasons. But records are maintained. Students can be tracked with Radio Frequency Identification microchips. Some schools see value in this both as a safety measure and a means of tracking school attendance.

According to the Washington Post, spyware has been installed on the computers of some government workers to monitor their activity. Sold by SpectorSoft, the software can vacuum up emails, capture Facebook posts and intercept Twitter feeds. And private surveillance cameras are now prevalent. Some hospitals have installed them installed them in restrooms to monitor employee hand hygiene, Snyder wrote.

Likewise, he cited a dramatic increase in the use of facial recognition software and interest in a network of public surveillance cameras that would rival those portrayed on the fictional "Person of Interest" television drama.

Another Washington Post report said that authorities in that city and elsewhere have deployed automated license plate readers capable of tracking the movement of vehicles — and building databases of travel habits.

And, of course, virtually all cell phones, apart from creating records of communication, now possess the technology to track the physical location of those who carry them. This technology already is routinely accessed by law enforcement.

Snyder devotes considerable time and space to litigation filed against the Bush administration and currently being defended by the Obama administration in which not one, but three National Security Agency whistleblowers have provided evidence. The lawsuit, filed by a group called the Electronic Frontier Foundation, alleged illegal government mass surveillance of phone calls, faxes and emails.

Lawyers for the NSA have essentially argued that the material "is too secret for the courts to consider," Snyder said.

"Neither the Constitution nor federal law allow the government to collect massive amounts of communication and data of innocent Americans and fish around in it in case it might find something interesting," said foundation legal director Cindy Cohn. "This kind of power is too easily abused."

No question it may help keep terrorists at bay. The questions is how else might it all be used in the hands of "a troublesome servant."

John Foreman, publisher of The News-Gazette, can be reached by email at jforeman@news-gazette.com or at P.O. Box 677 in Champaign.

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