Citizens: the New Enemy of the State

Enemy of the StateI didn’t see Enemy of the State until 2003. I was over at my sister’s and it came on TV. The film grabbed me instantly. It’s directed by Tony Scott, with all of his wonderful excesses. And then there was Gene Hackman taking another turn at the reasonable paranoia of Harry Caul in one of my very favorite films, The Conversation. What was a real surprise to me was that the film was not new—it was released in 1998. It seemed so obviously an attack on the recent huge increase in the surveillance state after 9/11. It wasn’t that I was naive and thinking that this stuff suddenly appeared as a result of the Bush administration. But the film seemed almost exactly what happened: government leaders using fear as political cover to greatly curtail civil liberties.

Most people by now have seen Lindsey Graham telling Fox News, “I’m a Verizon customer; I don’t mind Verizon turning over records to the government, if the government’s gonna make sure that they try to match up a known terrorist with somebody in the United States. I don’t think you’re talking to terrorists; I know you’re not. I know I’m not so we don’t have anything to worry about.” With all due respect to Graham, this entirely misses the point. For one thing, we don’t know what the government is doing with those records. For another thing, data use creep is a well known phenomenon. I can well see the definition of terrorism creeping from “people who bomb us” to “people who sell drugs to us” to “people who cheat on their wives.”

But the biggest issue is the Enemy of the State problem. Under most circumstances, Graham is right: we have nothing to worry about. But we do have something to worry about if we start publicly complaining about government policy. We’ve already seen the “War on Terror” used against peace activists. For the average American Idol fan, there is nothing to fear. But that’s also true under most autocratic governments. The fact that Lindsey Graham and the hosts of Fox and Friends have nothing to fear is irrelevant.

The film Enemy of the State has many problems. For one thing, satellites can’t be moved around like that. But there were three things that Brill says that seem relevant to the recent revelations about the government’s spying programs. First, how long:

The government’s been in bed with the entire telecommunications industry since the forties. They’ve infected everything. They get into your bank statements, computer files, email, listen to your phone calls… Every wire, every airwave. The more technology used, the easier it is for them to keep tabs on you. It’s a brave new world out there. At least it’d better be.

Second, how easy:

In the old days, we actually had to tap a wire into your phone line. Now with calls bouncing off satellites, they snatch ’em right out of the air.

Third, how bad:

Fort Meade has 18 acres of mainframe computers underground. You’re talking to your wife on the phone and you use the word “bomb”, “president”, “Allah”, any of a hundred keywords, the computer recognizes it, automatically records it, red-flags it for analysis. That was 20 years ago.

It’s alright to think it’s hopeless, because it probably is. But it is wrong to think it isn’t a problem.

Here is a good segment on the whole issue by Cenk Uygur:

Afterword

A big problem I run into with liberals these days is the idea that this isn’t a problem because we can trust Obama. Of course, it isn’t phrased that way. It’s mostly just an attitude: liberals shrug off these revelations or claim that Bush did the same thing. Well, that’s the point! First, we all elected Obama because we thought he would be better than Bush. Second, even if we can trust him, he will only be president for another three and a half years. Then we will have someone else. Eventually, we will have a Republican. And regardless, eventually we will have a really bad person in the job who will abuse these powers in a way that will shock even the American public. This is important stuff.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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