Wednesday, May 16, 2012
The surveillance state expands. The Patriot Act allows our phones to be wiretapped. Our email and Internet transactions leave a trail for some to follow. The police can access our GPS location data through our smartphones without a warrant. Retailers record our purchasing habits with painstaking detail. Apparently, Target studies those purchases to determine when customers are pregnant — in the second trimester, no less — for specialized marketing purposes.

And now, there will be surveillance drones. Congress recently passed a bill ("The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012") that opens the gates to widespread use of surveillance drones on U.S. soil. They will be used for law enforcement and border protection but also commercially — for real estate, entertainment and journalism, for example. One prominent drone showcased on the Web is a hummingbird drone. As the name suggests, it's tiny, quick and highly mobile. A popular video shows the hummingbird drone entering a building and flying down a corridor, transmitting everything it sees. It's chilling to imagine the possibilities — and the future.

The political problem with all this surveillance is obvious if we'd care to admit it. Authorities have so much more access to the details of our lives, information which, in the wrong hands, could do real harm. The only thing protecting us is the character of those in power who collect all this information — and swear they will do nothing objectionable with it.

Regarding the new National Defense Authorization Act, which sanctions the president's power to detain indefinitely or even assassinate U.S. citizens suspected of involvement in terrorist organizations, President Barack Obama tried to allay fears by saying that this administration will use discretion and judgment in exercising this power. What about subsequent administrations? The Founding Fathers were highly concerned to design a government impervious to corruption by character flaws of individual officeholders. The "war on terror" has steadily rendered us vulnerable to just that.

Perhaps most remarkable about the growing surveillance state is how we are largely unperturbed by it. Indeed, we jump headlong into the new technologies that allow us to be watched. The ACLU cries like a voice in the wilderness about civil rights threats, but we're too busy shopping online, sharing intimate personal details on Facebook, Tweeting our most mundane revelations...