With red-light cameras, store and home surveillance equipment, and the federal government collecting information on phone calls, email and Internet searches, maybe a little paranoia is justified.
Revelations about the National Security Agency's surveillance programs made by Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old ex-NSA contractor currently searching for a safe haven so he can escape espionage charges, have rocked not only U.S. residents, but the nation's allies as well.
In April, the Tsarnaev brothers were identified through store surveillance footage in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing.
Earlier this month, Chicago police announced they were able to identify an alleged mugger using facial recognition software tied to the city's 24,000 surveillance cameras (that comes to about one camera for every 100 or so city residents).
The mushrooming monitoring capabilities have alarmed civil libertarians who warn Americans are giving up their civil rights in pursuit of the illusion of safety.
The American Civil Liberties Union last week documented police department tracking of passing cars, snapping photos of license plates, noting times and locations, with some saving that information indefinitely. The programs were started with the hope of spotting certain vehicles so warrants could be served or stolen vehicles located.
"Increasingly, all of this data is being fed into massive databases that contain the location information of many millions of innocent Americans stretching back for months or even years," the ACLU said on its website.
"License plate readers are just one example of a disturbing phenomenon: The government is increasingly using new technology to collect information about all of us, all the time, and to store it forever providing a complete record of our lives for it to access at will."
The ACLU warned such tracking technology could reveal "powerful indicators of people's beliefs.
"Is it really the government's business how often you go to the drug store or liquor store, what doctors you visit and the identities of your friends? ... If the government comes to suspect you of something in 2020, should it have access to databases stretching back years that could dig up facts about you that previously went unnoticed?"
Are we living through "1984" or "Minority Report?"
History Professor Alfred McCoy of the University of Wisconsin-Madison said in a piece written for TomDispatch, which bills itself as "a regular antidote to the mainstream media," the government appears to be applying what it developed for the pacification of Afghanistan and Iraq to the home front.
"The White House shows no sign -- nor does Congress -- of cutting back on construction of a powerful, global Panopticon that can surveil domestic dissidents, track terrorists, manipulate allied nations, monitor rival powers, counter hostile cyberstrikes, launch pre-emptive cyberattacks, and protect domestic communications," McCoy said, noting Washington is investing billions on global information control systems while cutting back on traditional military hardware and personnel.
"Sadly, Mark Twain was right when he warned us just over 100 years ago that America could not have both empire abroad and democracy at home," McCoy wrote. "To paraphrase his prescient words, by 'trampling upon the helpless abroad' with unchecked surveillance, Americans have learned, 'by a natural process, to endure with apathy the like at home.'"
President Obama has downplayed the NSA leak, saying during his trip to Africa last month he hopes the revelations spark "a healthy, effective debate in the United States about how we balance our security and our privacy concerns, because these programs ... make America safe."
Snowden, who has been compared to Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers at the height of the Vietnam War, revealed the existence of a 6-year-old program known as PRISM, requiring Verizon Business Services to give the FBI an "ongoing, daily" download of "all call detail records," including caller and recipient locations, call time and duration. The secret court order authorizing the program applied to all calls made domestically and between a domestic U.S. location and elsewhere in the world. It does not require Verizon to divulge communication contents -- a separate court order is required for that. The information then is provided to the Defense Department's National Security Agency, based at Fort Meade, Md.
"When it comes to telephone calls, nobody is listening to your telephone calls," Obama said following the initial revelations. "That's not what this program's about. As was indicated, what the intelligence community is doing is looking at phone numbers and durations of calls."
In addition to Verizon, Google, Facebook, Yahoo!, Microsoft, Paltalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple provided information to the government.
"Everyone should just calm down and understand this isn't anything that is brand new,'' Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said.
The administration says the database was authorized by the Patriot Act but Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., said last week Congress never intended to give the NSA that much power. He said Congress intended to allow only seizures directly related to national security investigations.
Capturing electronic signals began long before the 2001 terror attacks in New York and Washington but in 2002 then-President George W. Bush signed an executive order authorizing a far more wide-reaching surveillance effort, especially domestically.
A poll by Pew Research indicated 45 percent of Americans called the NSA phone tracking acceptable while 41 percent were against it. When it came to email, however, 52 percent opposed the tracking while 45 percent approved. Sixty-two percent said investigating terror threats was more important than protecting one's privacy, compared to 34 percent who disagreed. The poll of 1,004 adults was taken June 6-9 and had a 3.7 percentage-point error margin.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has filed suit to block illegal surveillance, warns the widespread eavesdropping is "in violation of the privacy safeguards established by Congress and the U.S. Constitution."
The foundation said it has AT&T documents indicating the carrier makes copies of all emails, Web browsing and other Internet traffic to and from its customers and gives it to the NSA.
"As one expert observed, 'This isn't a wiretap, it's a country-tap,'" the foundation said on its website.
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