Saturday, November 9, 2013

Nixon Had It Right: The Government Should Be Wiretapped

Back in 2003, it was already well established that the US federal government was using new surveillance powers found in the Patriot Act to investigate crimes unrelated to terrorism. In 2001, the ACLU detailed how the FBI issued 143,074 national security letters (which come with gag orders), resulting in 53 criminal referrals, of which only one was for terrorism. And, in October, NSA Chief Gen. Keith Alexander stated that only one or two terrorists plots were thwarted because of federal surveillance of telephone conversations.

If we acknowledge that federal surveillance powers are being used to fight non-terrorism crimes, then perhaps we should rethink the very idea of surveillance—and imagine what other crimes could be fought in this way. Call this a thought experiment: What if we inverted the federal government's surveillance philosophy, or modulated it, folding it back onto federal officials? If knowledge and data are power, then why not empower Americans with a tool that could impose ethics on our political institutions?

This is, more or less, what WikiLeaks and Anonymous have sought to do for the last few years. But, this approach requires either waiting for whistleblowers to speak, or hackers to purloin vital documents. What if we didn't have to rely on whistleblowers, hackers, and activists to break the truth out of vaults full of secrets? What if if every public move made by a government official, from bureaucrat to politician, was recorded, filed, streamed, and otherwise posted online for all to see? Perhaps then government decision-making could be straightened out.

Think about it: we already peer into government in various other ways—FOIA requests, congressional floor debate and committee testimony; partial reporting of political campaign donations and expenditures; voting records, etc. This clearly isn't enough, though. Deals aren't made on the floors of congress, but in back rooms, parlors, and at dinner tables between politicians, lobbyists, and financial power brokers.

Why don't we mandate surveillance of elected officials? Imagine a world in which every email between a politician and lobbyists were made public; every phone call, text, and Skype session recorded and logged, and made accessible to anyone in the country. Politician and bureaucrats daily movements tracked via GPS, and all closed committee hearings made public. Add to that a constantly updated stream of congressional and bureaucratic activity. Sound intrusive? Well, Americans already experience this type of privacy invasion; why shouldn't the government figures imposing this system on Americans (and foreigners) feel the very same Big Brother presence at all times?

"The data mining and surveillance of government officials, allowing a constant stream of information on political backroom dealing, could create the most open democracy the world has ever seen."

Indeed, if we're serious about fighting crime, then maybe we should take a deeper look into the US government's cozy dealings with bankers, corporations, investors, and billionaire activists. 

Richard Nixon actually had the right idea back in the '70s, when he was recording every conversation he could. His paranoia, it turns out, was actually a teachable moment, though far too soon for the American people to fully comprehend its potential. We needed the Patriot Act and the treasure trove of Edward Snowden leaks to learn that Nixon had been right all along. I can almost hear Hunter S. Thompson's ghost coming to the same conclusion. 

Nixon had various White House rooms outfitted with telephone line taps and lavalier microphones, all recorded with nine voice-activated Sony TC-800B open-reel tape recorders. Our surveillance technology is far more impressive. Surely we can do better than Nixon's spooks. Neither did he have smartphones, which we know are incredible surveillances sources, and very likely in the hand of every legislator and bureaucrat in this fair land. 

Imagine if, upon oath of office, all politicians were outfitted with something like Samsung's Galaxy Gear, or some other type of wearable technology, such as Nike's FuelBand SE. Then imagine Google Glass technology fine-tuned such that all public interactions were recorded to digital video. Then, all of this audio and video would be routed to an internet stream, where voters would know the exact dimensions of political decision-making. 

If, for instance, an oil company lobbyist had a meeting with a senator, then the wearable audio and video recorder would pick up every last detail and broadcast it on the internet. If a freshman congressman had dinner with an experienced power broker like investment banker Jamie Dimon, Americans would be able to see that, too.  

Things could get rather interesting in a politician's more private moments. We'd hear farts and other bodily noises. Citizen voyeurs could potentially witness trips to the bathroom. Which raises an interesting question about whether these public figures' privacy rights extend to restrooms. If the wearable surveillance technology must be shuttered upon bathroom entry, then these areas could become new corporate-political backrooms. Just something to consider. 

Democracy is about openness. The data mining and surveillance of government officials, allowing a constant stream of information on political backroom dealing, could create the most open democracy the world has ever seen. Of course, US legislators would never allow it. But it is an interesting thought—a looking glass world of inverted surveillance.

Put this idea to Congress and there would be an uproar, the irony of which would be legendary. But, fair is fair. If mass, pervasive surveillance and data mining, both by the government and corporations, is the new reality, then government officials should have to live that reality, too.