All Hail the Surveillance State

Attention, chickens: You may soon be coming home to roost.

The word has gone out in the windowless buildings that house the switching equipment and state-of-the-art technology -- in what used to be called phone companies before they morphed into communication giants -- that a day of reckoning may be on the horizon for Verizon and its mates.

These chickens have been clucking at each other and gobbling each other up for years, silently reestablishing the old monopoly Bell System under the guise of new competitive guidelines. Private industries are once again putting together what the federal courts tore asunder. Oligopoly seems to be the highest expression of "free" market logic and its logical consequence.

At issue now are historically unprecedented and massive violations of privacy that we learned about from a rare occurrence: a newspaper actually doing its job. USA Today of all papers, blew the whistle on a massive government surveillance program run by the National Insecurity Agency tapping millions of phones, cell phones and every manner of communications devices.

It's called "data mining," and it's now the scandal du jour as National Security journalist William Arkin explains, "This NSA-dominated program of ingestion, digestion and distribution of intelligence raises profound questions about the privacy and civil liberties of all Americans."

He warns, "An all-seeing domestic surveillance is slowly being established, one that in just a few years time will be able track the activities and 'transactions' of any targeted individual in near real time."

Knee-jerk supporters of the Bush agenda were backhanded in their support. Here's Neil Cavuto on Fox News implying that all of this spying is needed to protect us: "Yes, it is not great to necessarily hear they're collecting our phone records, but it's a heck of a lot better than collecting our remains."

Since this news broke, the Telco companies went into full PR spin mode as theNew York Times reported Saturday: "Those companies insisted that they were vigilant about their customers' privacy, but did not directly address their cooperation with the government effort, which was reported on Thursday by USA Today. Verizon said that it provided customer information to a government agency 'only where authorized by law for appropriately defined and focused purposes,' but that it could not comment on any relationship with a national security program that was 'highly classified.'

"Legal experts said the companies faced the prospect of lawsuits seeking billions of dollars in damages over cooperation in the program, citing communications privacy legislation stretching back to the 1930s. A federal lawsuit was filed in Manhattan yesterday seeking as much as $50 billion in civil damages against Verizon on behalf of its subscribers."

Unfortunately, buried in all the reporting on the latest juicy scandal at a time of cascading horror stories is something even worse: These same companies, rip-off artists that they are, have their wallets set and lobbyists targeted in taking over the internet. This felonious attempt by the telcos to control the most powerful communications medium in the world makes the spy scandal a mere misdemeanor.

Note which story is getting most of the attention!

TV pundit Paul Begala made this point on CNN: "Big government is getting into bed with big business. We're talking about AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth. AT&T, by the way, wants to take over the internet and start charging for access to the internet, which internet pioneers desperately oppose.

"So, now, if you are running AT&T, and the president of the United States comes to you and says, ‘Hey, why don't I spy, why don't I snoop through your files there,’ and you want him to give you permission to control the internet — that's a really lousy alliance politically for the Republicans, to be seen as big government in bed with big business."

This collusion between the corporate world and the Busheviks mirrors the pre-war complicity at the FCC between the news networks and the government. The covert quid pro quo then had the TV nets telling the regulators essentially, "You waive the rules, and we will wave the flag."

The blogger Billmon raises an even darker specter, writing, "What makes the program so scary, at least to me, isn't the possibility that it was built to serve some sinister purpose, like subverting what's left of American democracy (which is scary enough), but rather that it may be the end product of a national security bureaucracy running completely out of control -- even more so now than during the worst years of the Cold War.

"Rogue actors can still be voted out of office, even impeached. But a rogue Leviathan is another story. Certainly, the details that have come to light about the program so far smack of what can only be described as bureaucratic megalomania: 'It's the largest database ever assembled in the world,' said one person, who, like the others who agreed to talk about the NSA's activities, declined to be identified by name or affiliation. The agency's goal is "to create a database of every call ever made" within the nation's borders, this person added.

"It sounds suspiciously like Robert Klein's old standup routine about the late-night TV ad that promises to send you 'every record ever made.'

"I'm certainly no technical expert, but I find it really hard to believe that collecting such a staggering horde -- 2 trillion call records since 2001 -- will yield useful intelligence about a relatively small and increasingly amorphous network of clandestine operatives who by now have almost certainly learned not to use the phones. ..."

This surveillance scenario now has a space component as well with the little-known National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGIA) watching us from satellites in space.

AP reports: "With help, the agency can also zoom in. Its officials cooperate with private groups, such as hotel security, to get access to footage of a lobby or ballroom. That video can then be linked with mapping and graphical data to help secure events or take action, if a hostage situation or other catastrophe happens.

"Privacy advocates wonder how much the agency picks up and stores. ... Among the government's most closely guarded secrets, the quality of pictures NGA receives from classified satellites is believed to far exceed the one-meter resolution available commercially. That means they can take a satellite "snapshot'' from high above the atmosphere that is crisply detailed down to one-meter level, which is 3.3 feet."

To Billmon, this increasingly permanent scandal and insidious threat recalls the words of Thomas Hobbes in "The Leviathan," written in 1651.

"It appeareth plainly, to my understanding, both from reason and Scripture, that the sovereign power. ... is as great as possibly men can be imagined to make it. And though of so unlimited a power men may fancy many evil consequences, yet the consequences of the want of it, which is perpetual war of every man against his neighbor, are much worse."

The convergence between the telcos and the internet, the broadcasters and the broadbanders is birthing a new media world. But it's not just the old media that is at risk. Our democracy is imperiled, and not just by the unchecked power of big government. The corporate world lurks in the shadows here. They are the "men behind the curtain." It is our our job as concerned citizens to take crises like the ones now surfacing and deepen them and raise bloody hell before their new technologies take us backward into the future.

Hobbes' “Leviathan” begat Orwell's “1984” and Huxley's “Brave New World.” His worries are still timely, and, as Billmon intimates, it offers a vision of chickens -- and chicken hawks -- playing "gobble, gobble" with our freedoms and our lives.

"Having entrusted their security and their liberties to the beast," he writes, "Leviathan's subjects will be lucky not to wind up like Jonah, lodged in its belly."

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