Chicago's Panopticon and 7 Other Ways We're Being Watched

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From the Windy City to airports to our phones, the surveillance state is expanding in disturbing ways -- and with little objection

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The photograph above was taken inside the Chicago Emergency Communication Center, where government employees monitor the streets using roughly 10,000 cameras placed throughout the city. Thanks to Jacob Sullum at Reason I came across the ACLU's apt objection to the program:

While earlier camera systems tracked only how some people spend some of their time in the public way, a camera on every corner -- coupled with pan-tilt-zoom, facial recognition, and automatic tracking -- results in government power to track how all people spend all of their time in the public way.

Each of us then will wonder whether the government is watching and recording us when we walk into a psychiatrist's office, a reproductive health care center, a political meeting, a theater performance, or a book store. While the dystopia described by George Orwell in "1984" has not yet been realized, Chicago's current 10,000 surveillance cameras are a significant step in this direction. And a camera "on every corner" would be an even greater step.

Alas, Chicago's camera system is but one example of a broader assault on privacy taking place at every level of government. Hardly a week passes without a new front opening up. Before rounding up some of what's going on, it's worth returning to what exactly it was that Orwell described in what we all agree was a horrific society. "There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment," he wrote. "You had to live -- did live, from habit that became instinct -- in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized." How close are we to that world?

This list is hardly exhaustive, but it is sufficient for our purposes, because it shows how little privacy we're legally entitled to under a current understanding of the law, and the relationship between the state and the citizen that American officials will bring about if we let them. If you're an American who commutes into a city by car, uses a smart phone, and flies commercially a few times a year, it doesn't matter that you never do anything that justifies a warrant or triggers probable cause. Even if you're the most upstanding and innocent seeming person imaginable, the government can still, without a warrant, track your movements whenever you're driving, use cameras on city streets to figure out your movement as a pedestrian, secretly access your banking records, look through your text messages during a traffic stop, and either look underneath your clothing or pat down your genitals every time you embark on business travel or a vacation.

It's true that some of us remain largely free of these intrusions, for now, but that is exactly how they establish themselves as normal. We permit them in exceptional circumstances and before long they're the rule. Technology like GPS and smart phones would mean less privacy for individuals regardless -- most of us give up information about ourselves voluntarily in exchange for the advantages these innovations confer -- but the prudent course is to erect new safeguards against government abuse that explicitly account for the new tools they have to watch us.

This is especially so given the fact that if the FBI was monitoring you right now it's likely that would wouldn't know it.

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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