Big Brother Democracy: How Free Speech and Surveillance Are Now Intertwined
Recently, as protesters gathered outside the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP) summit in Montebello, Quebec, to confront US President George W. Bush, Mexican President Felipe CalderÃƒÂ³n and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the Associated Press reported this surreal detail: "Leaders were not able to see the protesters in person, but they could watch the protesters on TV monitors inside the hotel ... Cameramen hired to ensure that demonstrators would be able to pass along their messages to the three leaders sat idly in a tent full of audio and video equipment ... A sign on the outside of the tent said, 'Our cameras are here today providing your right to be seen and heard. Please let us help you get your message out. Thank You.'"
Yes, it's true: Like contestants on a reality TV show, protesters at the SPP were invited to vent into video cameras, their rants to be beamed to protest-trons inside the summit enclave. It was security state as infotainment -- Big Brother meets, well, Big Brother.
The spokesperson for Prime Minister Harper explained that although protesters were herded into empty fields, the video-link meant that their right to political speech was protected. "Under the law, they need to be seen and heard, and they will be."
It is an argument with sweeping implications. If videotaping activists meets the legal requirement that dissenting citizens have the right to be seen and heard, what else might fit the bill?
How about all the other security cameras that patrolled the summit -- the ones filming demonstrators as they got on and off buses and peacefully walked down the street? What about the cellphone calls that were intercepted, the meetings that were infiltrated, the e-mails that were read? According to the new rules set out in Montebello, all of these actions may soon be recast not as infringements on civil liberties but the opposite: proof of our leaders' commitment to direct, unmediated consultation.
Elections are a crude tool for taking the public temperature -- these methods allow constant, exact monitoring of our beliefs. Think of surveillance as the new participatory democracy; of wiretapping as the political equivalent of Total Request Live.
Protesters in Montebello complained that while they were locked out, CEOs from about thirty of the largest corporations in North America -- from Wal-Mart to Chevron -- were part of the official summit.
But perhaps they had it backward: The CEOs had only an hour and fifteen minutes of face time with the leaders. The activists were being "seen and heard" around the clock. So perhaps instead of shouting about police state tactics, they should have said, "Thank you for listening." (And reading, and watching, and photographing, and data-mining.)
The Montebello "seen and heard" rule also casts the target of the protests in a new light. The SPP is described in the leaders' final statement as an "ambitious" plan to "keep our borders closed to terrorism yet open to trade." In other words, a merger of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the homeland security complex -- NAFTA with spy planes.
The model dates back to September 11, when the US Ambassador to Canada, Paul Cellucci, pronounced that in the new era, "security will trump trade." But there was an out clause: The trade on which Canada's and Mexico's economies depend could continue uninterrupted, as long as those governments were willing to welcome the tentacles of the US "war on terror." Canadian and Mexican business leaders leapt to surrender, aggressively pushing their governments to give in to US demands for "integrated" security in order to keep the goods and tourists flowing.
Almost six years later, the business leaders at Montebello -- under the banner of the North American Competitiveness Council, an official wing of the SPP -- were still holding up "thickening borders" as the bogeyman. The fix? According to the SPP website, "technological solutions, improved information-sharing, and, potentially, the use of biometric identifiers."
From experience we know what this means: continent-wide no-fly lists, searchable and integrated databases, as well as the $2.5 billion contract to Boeing to build a "virtual fence" on the northern and southern borders of the United States, equipped with unmanned drones.
In short, under the SPP vision of the continent, "thick" borders will soon be replaced with a nearly invisible web of continental surveillance -- almost all of it run for profit. Two members of the SPP advisory group -- Lockheed Martin and General Electric -- have already received multibillion-dollar contracts from the US government to build this web. In the Bush era, security doesn't trump big business; it may be the biggest business of all.
In the run-up to the SPP summit, a spate of surveillance scandals helped paint a fuller picture. First, Congress not only failed to curtail the National Security Agency's warrantless wiretapping but opened the door to snooping into bank records, phone call patterns and even physical searches -- all without any onus to prove the subject is a threat.
Next, the Boston Globe reported on plans to link thousands of CCTV cameras on streets, subways, apartment buildings and businesses into networks capable of tracking suspects in real time. And on August 15, confirmation came that the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency -- the arm of the US military that runs spy planes and satellites over enemy territory -- would be fully integrated into the infrastructure of domestic intelligence gathering and local policing, becoming what the agency calls the "eyes" to the NSA's "ears."
Add a few more high-tech tools -- biometric IDs, facial-recognition software, networked databases of "suspects," GPS bundled into ever more electronic devices -- and you have something like the world of total surveillance most recently portrayed in The Bourne Ultimatum.
Which brings us back to the Security and Prosperity Partnership. Who needs clumsy old border checks when the authorities are making sure we are seen and heard at all times -- in high definition, online and off-, on land and from the sky? Security is the new prosperity. Surveillance is the new democracy.
This column was first published in The Nation (www.thenation.com). and please include