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You're under surveillance

By Alan Caruba
web posted February 6, 2006

In the midst of all the hypocritical and self-righteous talk about the fact that the National Security Agency actually listens to calls from known or suspected terrorists talking to someone in the United States or vice versa, is the fact that every single American is under surveillance these days. It begins with the Social Security number that is issued to newborn infants!

There is hardly a purchase you make that isn't monitored for the purpose of selling more of the same or identifying you as a potential customer for something else. As Robert O'Harrow, Jr., a Washington Post reporter and author of No Place to Hide, says, "Almost every aspect of our lives is being recorded by someone, somewhere."

Is it time to get very paranoid or is this just the way business conducts marketing research these days? The answer is the latter. This is particularly true when it comes to your credit rating and credit card activity.

Like a lot of Americans, I pay a company to constantly monitor my credit status and report back to me if anything odd occurs with one of my cards. Why pay attention to that? Well, identity theft is almost ridiculously easy and not too long ago more than forty million credit card numbers were hacked from MasterCard International Inc. and Bank of America lost the financial information data for 1.2 million federal workers.

Not a day goes by when I don't receive emails from fictitious Ebay, PayPal, banking and credit card operations "phishing" for my credit card and financial information.

However, when it's the government that's taking an interest in these otherwise mundane activities, then the opportunity to cross the line becomes a potential invasion of privacy if a warrant has not been issued. That should be a cause of legitimate concern.

As it is, the government asks for and voluntarily receives tons of personal information every time you interact with any aspect of it. And what they don't have, they can get from a company such as Acxiom, described by Harrow as "a billion-dollar player in the data industry with details about nearly every adult in the United States." It is now working closely with Homeland Security officials.

I love the "CSI: Crime Scene Investigators" television series. What fun to see its characters run a computer check on some victim or suspect and watch as all kinds of information becomes almost instantly available. Where do you think that information comes from? Do you have a driver's license? Have you ever received a speeding or parking ticket? Do you work for the government or a branch of its military services?

Why Americans would get exercised over government surveillance at this point is a bit surprising, given the fact that a whole bunch of government agencies, from the Federal Bureau of Investigation to various intelligence agencies, have routinely been keeping an eye on all kinds of criminals and, thankfully, on our enemies.

Anyone who works for a corporation is under surveillance. A recent report based on a survey by the ePolicy Institute in cooperation with the American Management Association revealed that nine out of ten companies engage in workplace surveillance; primarily monitoring computer use. Two-thirds wanted to know what websites employees visit while on the job. Just over half of the 500 U.S. employers reported that they monitor phone calls and about one-in-five taped calls. More than half reported using video monitors.

There are some very good reasons for this because corporations can be held accountable for the misbehavior of employees when they are on the job and, perhaps, uploading nude pictures of children to their favorite pedophile website. They need to fend off sexual harassment, hostile work-environment, and claims of wrongful termination lawsuits. Just as important, companies need to detect any source of leaks about their products or services to competitors, about sensitive merger talks, and even unfounded rumors.

Video surveillance is so commonplace these days that you are being watched in supermarkets, department stores, and countless other places.

Is it wrong for the government to tap your phone or read your mail without a warrant? Yes. It has always been wrong, but the current NSA flap is about listening to traffic from outside the U.S. to people inside who may be planning to kill a lot of us. Since this occurs at the speed of sound, the need to get a warrant has been overtaken by modern technology.

Key members of Congress knew about the NSA program and were briefed on a regular basis. Did any one of them complain before The New York Times, after sitting on the story for over a year and being personally requested by the President to keep it secret, choose to reveal it just before one of its reporters published a book on the topic? In my view, The Times, the reporter, and probably the publisher of his book should be indicted for sedition. If the public's "right to know" supercedes the need to protect that same public against a declared enemy, this nation is in deep trouble.

My feeling is that most Americans understand what is at stake, know that the nation is at war with a merciless, deranged enemy, and know that, if they aren't breaking the law in some fashion, such surveillance is a vital element of the war on terrorism.

Alan Caruba writes a weekly column, "Warning Signs", posted on the Internet site of The National Anxiety Center. © 2006 Alan Caruba

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