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The Disappearing Line Between Surveillance and Social Control

Reprinted from Wall Street on Parade

August 15, 2012

According to Simon Chesterman, who has written extensively on surveillance, over the past four decades  the number of Americans killed by international terrorists was about the same as the number killed by lightning strikes or allergic reactions to peanuts.  But that has not deterred the U.S. government from marshalling the resources of 16 agencies and an annual budget of $75 billion to “protect” us.

In 2009, as reported in the Washington Post, Dennis Blair, the Director of National Intelligence, blurted out the scale of the program during a morning conference call with reporters.  According to Blair: “This morning, we’re talking about the very important business of a blueprint to run this 200,000-person, $75 billion national enterprise in intelligence.”

No where is this surveillance juggernaut more noticeable than in the streets of Manhattan where thousands of both public and private CCTV cameras capture the comings and goings of law abiding citizens.

Of equal concern in New York City, this massive buildup has taken place without public hearings by the City Council. Also alarming, Wall Street corporations and their personnel have been tapped to participate in the program, fueling the perception that this is a corporate social control movement rather than a necessary police function.

It is equally disconcerting that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly are repeatedly providing tours of the Lower Manhattan Security Coordination Center, where Wall Street firms sit elbow to elbow with the New York Police Department, monitoring live feeds from CCTV cameras that show the round-the-clock comings and goings of law abiding citizens on the streets of Manhattan. 

As reporters tour this facility, they see the brass plates on workstations carrying the names of Wall Street corporations and other multi-nationals and, based on the lack of outrage by these reporters, the media is apparently being de-sensitized to the Orwellian absurdity of this spectacle.

One non-profit based in Washington, D.C., the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund (PCJF), has just launched a program to tackle this out-of-control surveillance.  PCJF is the same constitutional rights organization that filed the class action lawsuit over the NYPD’s mass arrest of over 700 Occupy Wall Street protesters on the Brooklyn Bridge on October 1 of last year.

PCJF has been intensively investigating the spiraling surveillance and filing Freedom of Information requests with police departments around the country. Carl Messineo, legal director of the group, says “what was once an Orwellian dark fantasy is a current day reality in the United States.”

In a notice to civil rights advocates, PCJF said: “Most people are not aware that silently, but constantly, the government is now watching, recording your everyday travels and storing years of your activities in massive data warehouses that can be quickly ‘mined’ to find out when and where you have been, whom you’ve visited, meetings you’ve attended, and activities you’ve taken part in. This is all done by using an elaborate network of Automatic License Plate Recognition (ALPR) cameras, also known as tag readers…You’re being tracked routinely, without probable cause, without a warrant and without even a suspicion that you have committed a crime.”

Like the NYPD in failing to hold public hearings, PCJF notes that “In nearly all instances, federally funded agencies, like the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice, who are using this technology, have proceeded without public disclosure, debate or oversight in establishing the system of surveillance on the movements and activities of the American public.”

According to PCJF, the Department of Homeland Security has created customized software to integrate the surveillance data obtained through all the different vendor systems that are on the market and used by different localities. The federal government has a massive data storage center for tag reader information located in Northern Virginia.

With a plate and a cross-reference to other databases (like the Department of Motor Vehicles, credit card companies and phone records) a full profile of the individual can easily be created. The fusion of license plate reader data with commercial databases and intelligence databases gives the government virtually unlimited knowledge of an individual’s activities and associations.

To counter this ominous encroachment on constitutional rights, PCJF has just launched a national campaign, “One Nation Under Surveillance,” with a proactive website providing the tools and information to engage the American people.