The Eyes Have It

Recent weeks have brought a slew of stories about the rapid proliferation of routine surveillance. First, Jet Blue violated its own privacy policy by handing over a million passenger names to a Pentagon contractor. Then came the news that the Biloxi, Mississippi school system has installed surveillance cameras in every classroom, and that a number of other schools are doing the same. Taken on their own, these news stories can seem minor, but the political whole of creeping surveillance is greater than the sum of its many disparate parts.

The principal of one Biloxi school praised the classroom cameras as a form of "truth serum" that insures student obedience. Her message was clear and highlighted the larger social issues at play in each specific instance of increased surveillance. The implications of such a pro-camera argument go as follows: What does one have to fear from total surveillance as long as one submits totally to all rules and laws?

Wait a second: Is obedience always good? Is authority always moral? Are the many rules and laws of this society all rational, benevolent, and infallible? Of course not.

Today, as in the past, both public and private forms of authority are very often corrupt, mendacious and brutal. Potential abuse is inherent in the nature of institutional power. Recognition of this historically immutable fact is even built into our legal and political traditions.

Liberal democratic thought has always cast the state’s power over individuals as simultaneously necessary and dangerous. Thus John Locke’s argument for legislative government as opposed to the divine right of kings made a case for limitations on state power. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution’s Bill of Rights also acknowledged the fact that state power, and by extension any concentration of power, must have checks put on it. Very often such limitations take the form of disobedient opposition to the rules.

Recent American history is replete with examples of laws and regulations that were in retrospect completely immoral and illegitimate. Children once worked in coalmines. Women were denied the right to vote until 1920. Blacks were relegated to second-rate public facilities and barred from the polls until 1964. Alcohol was illegal for 12 years, while dumping untreated waste into drinking water was not.

All these unjust rules were changed in large part because people resisted and agitated, often breaking the law to do so. Would social progress like that achieved by the civil right movement been possible in a society of total surveillance and deeply ingrained habitual obedience to any and all authority? No way.

The routine surveillance of the digital age is already being used to stifle dissent. Take for example the "no-fly list" created by Transportation Security Administration using information from the CIA, FBI, INS and State Department. Ostensibly designed to keep terrorists from boarding and taking down planes, the list has also been used to harass and limit the mobility of peace activists.

In 2002 a delegation of 20 anti-war activists from Wisconsin, including clergy, were prevented from flying to Washington, D.C. to meet and lobby their congressional delegation because airline computers deemed them to be a security threat. A Green Party activist in Maine was also delayed from flying by the same means. A lawyer from the Center for Constitutional Rights who is routinely subjected to as many as three searches in each airport also suspects that she’s on the no fly list.

The larger implications of proliferating surveillance must be stated clearly. The cameras in Biloxi are disturbing in their own right but they are even more disturbing because of what they portend for our society as a whole: a foreclosure on dissent. The cameras in the classroom are teaching students to be ever more obedient; that is, to internalize the rules and to accept as legitimate an authority that polices even the most picayune infractions.

It is true that privacy brings risks: the risk of unruly kids, of crime, etc. But the inexorable drift toward a society marked by omniscient state and corporate authority bolstered by a surveillance-fueled culture of unquestioned adherence to all rules is far more dangerous. In fact, total obedience would mean nothing less than the end of democracy.

Christian Parenti is the author of The Soft Cage: Surveillance in America from Slavery to the War on Terror (Basic Books 2003) and a fellow at City University of New York’s Center for Place, Culture and Politics.

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