Perhaps no president has shredded the Constitution (albeit temporarily) quite like Honest Abe Lincoln, who is roundly considered to be the finest ever to hold the office. Abe gets off easy, I believe, because he was honest about what he was doing. "Yes, I know what the Constitution says. But for right now, fuck the Constitution." He was not only wrong (per Ex Parte Milligan, a typically retrospective reprimand) but his actions were largely unnecessary. Never, though, did he pretend like his actions were anything other than what they were: a curtailing of individual civil liberties. See, what bothers me is not when political elites do immoral, illegal, or despicable things in the course of their duties. I just can't stand it when they claim that their actions are moral, legal, and in your best interests.
The FBI caught a little bit of flack last week (emphasis on little) when it announced plans to create a billion-dollar database of biometric data. While proponents will argue that law enforcement already uses biometric data (fingerprints, mugshots, some retinal scanning) I'd say that's quite a far cry from ubiquitous surveillance cameras identifying you in public based on face scans and your gait. "But!", they will respond, "we're only talking about a few high-security risk locations. Train stations, airports, government facilities, and so on." Hmm. Maybe it's time for Ed to tell you a story about something called Combat Zones That See.
Our friends at DARPA – the folks who brought you hits like the Internet, Onion routing, National Missile Defense, and a goddamn mechanical elephant – have created an eerily similar amalgam of technology that wires entire cities for surveillance. CZTS was created to "to deter enemy attacks on American troops and to identify and track enemy combatants who launch attacks against American soldiers." A massive network of cameras feeds into a central database which uses advanced technologies (some of which, admittedly, are not yet perfected) to track all movement and individuals in the area. That sure sounds great in "combat zones." Neat invention, this. The potential civilian applications are a complete coincidence, of course. I'll bet they never even thought of any until the ACLU brought it up.
I suppose one could make an argument, albeit one with which I would not agree, that placing entire cities under video surveillance is a good idea. There's no question that it would increase the ability to monitor and prosecute illegal activity. However, I can't accept the fact that privacy issues related to domestic use of such a system are answered with "Gee, we never even thought of that!" followed by "OK, it's totally feasible, but trust us, we wouldn't do that!" Someone willing to take the step of creating the technology to enable the 24-7 Surveillance Society should at least have the decency to admit what this is. I do not count myself among the tinfoil-hatted, but it doesn't take extreme cynicism to wonder about the extent to which this technology is about "protecting" us. Anyone remember all that talk about how if we compromised our democratic principles, the terrorists would win?
Yeah, me neither.