Farewell to Modernity in the New Age of Surveillance
Sunday 30 January 2011
by: Jan Widacki LLD, t r u t h o u t | Op-Ed
Surveillance cameras in New York City's financial district. (Photo: Jonathan McIntosh)
As has been said, probably rightly, the 19th century did not end until 1914, when the First World War broke out; similarly, the 20th century did not end on New Year's Eve 2000 or New Year's Day 2001, as the calendar would suggest, but continued for another few months. I daresay that the 20th century finally ended only on September 11, 2001, when suicide bombers succeeded in attacking the World Trade Center. Naturally, terrorism had been known for a long time. It was known all too well to 19th-century Europe. It also existed in the 20th century, and in plenty of shades. There was the terrorism of the leftist hit squads and there was Islamist terrorism. There was separatist terror in Northern Ireland and in the Basque Country. There was Palestinian and Chechen terrorism. It was experienced by the rich, stable societies of the West and by the countries of the Middle East. It was known in Latin America and in distant Japan.
Terrorism was connected to a variety of ideologies and served a variety of purposes. Every now and then, bombs exploded in the world, hostages were taken and airplanes hijacked. Every now and then, innocent people were dying somewhere. It always caused terror and made it hard for those responsible for security to sleep at night, forcing them to develop ever-newer techniques and ways of protection against terrorism. It caused worry, and, moreover, forced the introduction of ever-increasing limitations of freedom in the name of improving security. Gradually, terrorism changed our mentality. Step by step, we have become accustomed to limitations of freedom undertaken for the sake of improving security. After the assassination attempt in St. Peter's Square, where the bullets of the Turkish hired gun hit the pope, the pope moved from an open car to a bulletproof display carriage - the popemobile - and we soon considered the strange vehicle to be normal. Years later, nobody remembered that it used to be otherwise, that the pope had driven in an open car and shaken the hands of random people, and that those who managed to push through to the front of the crowds could get close enough to touch his cassock. In the same way, we got used to personal control at the airports.
All of this, however, was somewhere on the margins of the liberal world. It did not affect its essence. The attack on the World Trade Center made us aware that even a superpower may be defenseless in the face of terrorism.
One may chance the claim that, together with the destruction of New York's towers, the world that they symbolized collapsed as well - a world that had grown from the experience of the cruelties of the Second World War, the Holocaust, the genocide dispensed in the name of deranged Nazi and Communist ideologies, from the experience of the Soviet gulags and German death camps, from the experience of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; a world that was to be built on the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in line with the Charter of the United Nations, the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; a world whose main feature Karl Popper  believed to be the pursuit of humanity and reason, equality and freedom; a world moving away from closed, tribal society and pursuing open society, triggering the critical powers of reason; a world that - after the fall of the Soviet empire, after the Berlin Wall was torn down, after the bloodless revolution of Solidarity and the uniting of Europe - realized en masse that Marxism was, in all its aspects, not only the largest, but also the most costly fantasy of our century.
It seemed that the purpose of the world was to be the homeland to human rights. It seemed that at least the Western world is already such a place, that the direction of progress had finally been delineated. It seemed that the standards and frameworks of Western civilization had been defined once and forever as a civilization based on the three historical pillars: Greek philosophy, Roman law and Christianity stemming from Judaism.
The attitude toward democracy and human rights seemed the best test for states, governments and regimes. What Sarkozy did to the Roma when he deported them from France and what Angela Merkel recently said about the Muslim immigrants in Germany would have ended those leaders' political careers in an atmosphere of scandal just a little more than a decade ago. Today, these types of actions result in no more than weak and insignificant protests. Statements by the Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk concerning the need to castrate sexual offenders, the disrespectful tone of remarks concerning defenders of human rights and qualms about whether sexual criminals are people and have human dignity raise today no more than lukewarm protests among opponents and embarrassment among supporters, and are otherwise without any negative political consequences. One may be concerned over whether these examples are a testimony to a certain stable tendency: namely, the retreat from the ideal of the state being the homeland of human rights.
This trend is accompanied by the progress of science. Science has helped in difficult problems of the contemporary world, yet at the same time, it is beginning to pose such problems on its own. The fear of another terrorist attack resulted in significant tightening of personal controls and luggage checks at airports and justified the expansion of the prerogatives of the police and other state security services. Legal limitations concerning the use of wiretapping, introduced in the United States in 1978 in the name of defending liberty and rights to privacy, have recently been significantly slackened. The amendment to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 2007 allows wiretappers access to a larger number of connections without the concession of the court. Law enforcement may now intercept any information without the prior consent of the court, provided there is merely a justified suspicion that one of the partners exchanging the information remains outside the territory of the United States. In July 2008, the US Congress passed another act which significantly expanded the rights of the administration to plant bugs and at the same time significantly limited the previous control by the court.
Control of Internet connections has also been expanded. It is postulated that the administration must acquire the same level of authorization for controlling conversations within the United States as intelligence already has - that is, without the prior consent of courts or the precise definition of the target of surveillance. It seems to be only a question of time before such rights will be granted. 
The popularity of mobile telephony has made it possible to localize telephone owners fairly precisely and follow their routes and meetings with other mobile telephone owners, even without tapping into their actual calls. This technology allows efficient warfare against gangs, but it also makes it easier to monitor the whole of society.
An increasing number of premises and public spaces are permanently monitored. Stationary radars deployed by the roads monitor our vehicles and the speed at which they move. Our every entrance, not only into banks, but also shopping malls, is immortalized in security monitoring recordings. Every transaction we make with plastic is recorded. It is not difficult at all to discover what, where and when we bought; even in our consumption, we are not anonymous. To facilitate road and border controls, drivers' licenses and other documents have been designed so that they can be checked at a distance thanks to radio frequency identifiers (RFID), while chips - which have no protection against reading - are designed to monitor goods, thus facilitating surveillance and collecting information about people who carry such goods.
Huge funds have been earmarked for studies on lie detection, and it is no longer only the traditional polygraph (or "lie detector") recording the physiological correlates of the emotions of the person answering test questions. The US Department of Defense is financing research projects that would allow such examinations at a distance, without contact. This new method will allow tests to be conducted without the knowledge or consent of the subject, an intrusion that has so far been impossible. Therefore, it will likely be considered equally necessary to find and standardize physiological emotion correlates other than the ones used in polygraph studies so far - namely, those that can be observed and registered without contact and from a distance. These include emotional changes in the voice, changes of facial temperature (perceptible in thermovisual cameras) and eyeball movements. The option to conduct the examination while the subject remains unaware in fact eliminates all the legal restrictions on such practices that are today scrupulously observed.
Lie detection research is taking another new direction that involves following processes that take place in the brain, possibly thanks to the use of nuclear magnetic resonance (fMRI), which would effect a transition in lie detection from the level of psychophysiology to that of neurophysiology. The results achieved so far are extremely promising, with the diagnostic value of this method of lie detection being significantly higher than that of contemporary and past polygraph examinations.
The contemporary techniques of studying the brain and brain processes, especially fMRI, not only allow for precise and correct medical diagnosing, but can also be used in forensic studies. Even today, they can locate areas in the brain that are responsible for moral choices,  opening the prospect that it will someday be possible to read human thoughts; it is only a question of time. The most recent, fairly numerous reports, published, among others, in the Journal of Neural Engineering, corroborate this scientific direction. A civilization where this technology exists is going to be a different civilization, a civilization without any secrets, without lies. It is going to be a particular domain of cruel truth. Disappearing, by the way, will be our privacy, our manners and our good customs, which sometimes hold us back from telling the truth. Life will turn into a nightmare.
Our civilization cherishes the truth, but it also respects secrets: state, professional, trade, the secret of confession, the secret of correspondence and our privacy. Privacy is one of the features of our contemporary times, one that today seems most jeopardized. Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights guarantees everyone the right to respect of private and family life. It states that, "Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence." Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is phrased similarly. It too guarantees that, "No one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his honour and reputation," and that, "Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks."
Nevertheless, the European Convention provides further that:
There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
The threat to security on the one hand, and the capacity of science and technology on the other, make what was to be exceptional so common that one may have doubts about whether the principle still holds. As has rightly been noticed, technical progress, as well as the struggle against terrorism, have led to vast, probably irreversible changes in what we have so far considered private life.
Under the pressure of the police and other agencies claiming ever-new powers that are reportedly necessary to combat crime and defend against terrorism - and are, therefore, "necessary in a democratic society" - parliaments, with increasing frequency, are passing exceptions to the principle of nonintervention of public authorities into the privacy of the citizens. The regular course of action is that such an "exception" is first allowed for persecution of crime, and, therefore, is applicable only towards people suspected of its perpetration. Later, the "exception" is permissible to prevent crime, and, therefore, it is extrapolated to people who have as of yet committed no crime but who may potentially be preparing to commit a crime. In the meantime, intrusions are made into the privacy of people who have done nothing wrong yet and possibly never will. Moreover, such a suspicion - being hardly concrete and, in most cases, nonverifiable - allows preventive surveillance of any number of people at any time. It frequently leads to the temptation to extend surveillance to people or milieus that the authorities believe to be their political opponents. In states where special services are not sufficiently controlled (which is nearly everywhere), to increase their value and importance - or out of their own diligence - such services collect information about politicians to buy into the favors of the current government or to acquire trump cards for independent political role.
What guarantees does a "decent" citizen have that all the instruments of surveillance available today to a variety of services will not be used against their intention, against that citizen? And what is his or her guarantee that corrupt - or simply overzealous -police officers or agents will not spy on him or her for their own purposes? What will happen when foreign agents, criminals and/or terrorists break into systems of surveillance? How can we be certain that they will not buy information about us from a corruptible police officer? And what can be done if a mad, power-hungry person - someone that wants to pin down all true and imagined ploys, plots and stratagems at any price; someone who wants to arrange the world according to his or her sick imagination at any price, eager to control everyone and everything - seizes power?
DNA research revolutionized testing of so-called biological traces. The recently published new method allows the DNA of an individual to be detected even if it accounts for only .15 percent of the total DNA in a test sample. Until now, it has been impossible to find DNA that accounted for less than 10 percent of the total DNA in the sample. This undoubted success of the forensic sciences results, however, in far-ranging consequences in other fields. Molecular epidemiologists have long gathered vast DNA databases of people with specific health problems and even made them public in a variety of scientific magazines. They were convinced that the DNA samples let the public remain anonymous. With the arrival of the new method, they have ceased to be so. They can easily be assigned to specific people. Thus, it turns out that data suggesting particular genetic health predispositions of individuals were made public. In this way, what was disclosed is not only information that should have been covered by medical secrecy, but also something that may lead to a variety of consequences for the people whose DNA was revealed - for example, in matters connected to health insurance and employment.
DNA testing has in fact opened up a gamut of problems, and not only because genetic research provides plenty of extremely precious information about people's health or because unauthorized access to such databases may result in various consequences that are hard to envisage. What will happen when insurers begin to claim genetic data from the insured, differentiating the conditions of insurance contingent on the individual's health prospects? What will happen when the employer requires applicants to submit full genetic data before offering employment and makes access to such data a prerequisite for taking the person on?
Quite probably, large-scale genome analyses will soon be a routine which will significantly facilitate healthcare; yet, at the same time, it will also expose people to numerous dangers connected to the disclosure of such data. The biotechnological revolution is a justified reason for rapture, and many people attach great hopes to it. Nevertheless, especially in this field - as Francis Fukuyama rightly noticed - the self-regulation of the community of scientists, while working well so far (as it is forbidden to clone people, for example), may soon cease to function as well as it did in the past.
There are too many related commercial interests and too much money at stake. Fukuyama rightly claims that science is not capable of defining its own goals. It is only a tool for achieving human goals. In turn, the question of which goals the political community will consider correct is not a scientific question at all. In the meantime, legal regulations do not keep up with the progress of science. Either the legal regulations of science are delayed, or the legal prohibitions prove as insufficient as they are inefficient. For this reason, one should subscribe to Fukuyama's pessimism and assume that "in a sufficiently long time perspective, most techniques will eventually develop."
The world we were aiming at was to be a free one, granting people peace, equality, riches and healthcare, and allowing us to extend our lives and rid ourselves of numerous illnesses - and yet, the world we are approaching, which Fukuyama calls "our posthuman future," may be far more hierarchical and focused on competition than the present one: a world where the powers-that-be will be able to achieve full control over governed communities, and the governed communities, in turn, will manifest full control over the individuals. It is going to be a world of different - possibly genetically modified - people. Perhaps humankind, Adam and Eve's tribe, is reaching for the forbidden fruit. Will that effort result in an end to a possible life in a paradise of democracy and human rights?
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