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Stuart Fischoff Ph.D.
Stuart Fischoff Ph.D.

Boston Marathon--great surveillance too much surveillance?

Smart phones and security cameras--the blessing and the curse.

In Star Wars III (2005), the utterly evil Chancellor Palpatine tells the cheering Galactic Republic’s Senate that for their freedom and protection, he has taken away all of their power. As she watches, Senator Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman) ruefully intones:

“So this is how liberty dies -- with thunderous applause.”

A true “newspeak” Orwellian moment if ever there was one.

After 9/11, Americans -- maybe not cheering and applauding but certainly not protesting --willingly began to give up much of their privacy and civil rights for the promise of security.

Our nation has borne silent witness to judicial roll-outs of massive exceptions to the 4th Amendment’s rights of privacy and unreasonable search and seizure -- all at White House urging.

Add to judicial tinkering, the endless waves of technological innovations, especially security cameras in tandem with omnipresent HD, video-capable smart phones and you have effectively erased the ability to be a stranger.

Come to think of it, America is fast-becoming one gigantic studio backlot. Wittingly or un-, at some point, everyone is an actor in someone else’s film, someone else’s story.

Paralleling real life is the TV series Person of Interest (only a little ahead of its time) in which the public is always being watched, always being videotaped. J. Edgar Hoover would have danced for joy.

We are in the tense aftermath of the horrifying Boston Marathon bombing. Hundreds of investigators eyed what might be the largest accumulation of photographic evidence ever because -- We

wanted to know why. We wanted culprits. We want revenge. And we want assurances from our leaders that this will never happen again. We may get three out of four, if we’re lucky.

Obviously, electronic surveillance has value for national security. But what have we conceded, what have we given up? What about down time, what are we photographing when there is no bomb? Do we have to have non-stop surveillance for safety?

I can't be the only one who has noticed that we’ve seen five terrorist attacks in 12 years and the terrorist firewall proffered by the Department of Homeland Security didn't stop the attacks so much as aid in the capture of the perpetrators.

The existential dilemma of security vs. privacy gets even more chilling in the new normal world of monitoring citizens because private cell phones are now engineered to easily allow authorities to locate owners, scan call records and conversations, all without judicial oversight.

Those privacy sacrifices are only one part of the story. Consider Facebook, Linked-in, emails, TMs and all those killer apps that are furthering the death of privacy as we knew it. The Founding Fathers never conceived that one day U.S. citizens, on their own social media sites or on those of others, would be giving away access to their entire, ongoing life oeuvre, words images and all— soul bearing for convenience and the sheer love of it.

And Big Brother was not in the picture.

Thoughtful observers of our culture are less sanguine about the wonderful world of social media. They offer cautionary alerts about social media’s intrusion into our lives, youth’s uninterrupted connectivity and unreflective enthusiasm.

They are equally anxious about the collateral damage from the monetizing zeal of social and search services like Facebook, Google and Yahoo. Even though their data banks were initially, primarily for advertising, cultural trend analyses, and precision subscriber-user information, they are now regularly commandeered for government surveillance in criminal and terrorist investigations. Every friend and friend of a friend is fair game.

And let’s not forget social media’s relentless enticements to users to biographically disrobe. As a culture we are increasingly comfortable with voluntary self-exposure. It becomes habit-forming, even narcotic.

And then there's pilotless drones, first used for foreign surveillance and assassinations, now miniturized, redesigned and retrofitted. They are available to the National Guard, FBI and police forces for surveillance of individuals and crowds. The media is using them to safely cover severe weather, tracking L. A. high-speed freeway police chases (of course), and lord knows what (the mind boggles).

They want to watch us and perhaps we want them to. Personal and patriotic pressures to live a transparent, scrutable existence are likely to accelerate especially after the Boston Marathon bombing. First, because the escalation of soft-target attacks -- meaning sports events and celebrations -- is a sure thing. Fear and bravado will drive many to bow to the transparency demands, “Damn yeah, I've got nothing to hide. I'll be damned if I'll spend my life avoiding crowds and big events. This is America.”

And the NRA is worried about the 2nd Amendment and gun freedom? Hell, that’s a bagatelle when we reflect on our 4th Amendment perils.

Despite our fears and anxieties, are we up to the task of insuring that intrusions are reasonable? Like liberty, the nasty thing about privacy is that once you lose it, it’s really hard to get back.

Living in the long shadow of McCarthyism, will we recognize when the cost of American security is too high, that the path to saving America cannot be through destroying it.

We all want to help reduce crime and terrorism. But there is danger in forgetting that a policed state bursting with surveillance technology, despite the best intentions, is a menace itself.

The irony here is that threats to citizen privacy and liberty ultimately, perversely, come as much from within as without.

Natalie Portman in Star Wars III

Like the Lady said, “So this is how liberty dies.”

About the Author
Stuart Fischoff Ph.D.

Stuart Fischoff, Ph.D., was Senior Editor of the Journal of Media Psychology and Emeritus Professor of Media Psychology at Cal State, Los Angeles.

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