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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Road to Big Brother: One Man’s Struggle Against The Surveillance Society

As I write this review, millions of Americans are annoyed if not outraged over the recent measures adopted by the so-called Transportation Security Agency. Airline travelers hate the choice between going through a scanner that effectively undresses them and an aggressive grope of their bodies. Are those offensive procedures necessary? Are they legal? What is becoming of our country? At least people are starting to ask the right questions.

Highly pertinent to the TSA’s heightened arrogance is Ross Clark’s book The Road to Big Brother. Clark lives in Britain, where government surveillance of the citizenry is even more advanced than here. Referring to Jeremy Bentham’s idea for a prison where the prisoners would be constantly observed (or at least would think they were), Clark writes, “Modern Britain is one big panopticon.” The government watches, monitors, and gathers data on citizens all the time, justifying this as necessary for their safety. The big lesson readers take away from the book is that, like virtually everything the State does, costs greatly exceed benefits. People’s privacy is whittled away, their freedom erodes, their taxes go up, but criminals are barely inconvenienced by all the State’s surveillance.

The book is chock full of the author’s witty, often sarcastic observations on the panopticon that surrounds him. For example, the town of Luton has installed closed-circuit TV cameras that are supposedly “intelligent” since they are able to detect “suspicious” behavior. No criminals have been caught thanks to the cameras but, Clark writes, “Should your tastes in window-shopping not match those of the average resident, the system will pick you out. Should your clothing or your gait be considered out of the ordinary, the system will pick that out, too. . . . [The cameras] are less a cerebral detective than a skinhead who lashes out at people and customs that fall outside his narrow experience of what is ‘normal.’”

But why not give government surveillance a chance? After all, it might, occasionally, work. Clark alerts us to the danger in that line of thought, namely the likelihood of mission creep. Once the authorities get going with their schemes, they won’t stop. Monitoring of streets ostensibly to help prevent crime has expanded into monitoring people’s homes to see how energy-efficient they are, a development that will probably lead to mandates that homeowners install various energy-saving devices if they ever want permission to sell. There is no stopping point once Big Brother gets his foot in your door.

Advocates of increasing government surveillance usually say, “If you’re innocent, you have nothing to fear.” Clark shows how mistaken that notion is. With modern DNA testing, for example, it is possible to make highly probable (but not perfectly reliable) matches of crime scene DNA evidence with samples taken from the general populace. Many European politicians are pushing for a massive database of mandatory fingerprints and DNA samples, the better to help apprehend criminals. Clark points out, however, that this will encourage criminals to plant false DNA evidence to point investigation toward innocent people—who may have a hard time proving they really were not at the crime scene.

Moreover, officials in Britain are looking into the possibility of using DNA analysis to help identify people who might have a genetic predisposition toward crime. The result of that, Clark fears, will be social workers devising “care plans” for individuals suspected of being potential criminals. The Nanny State will grow apace once it gets the mission of trying to prevent people from going bad.

And what happens when, inevitably, public officials make a mistake? Suppose that your name is erroneously entered into the Police National Computer? Clark cites a report that 22 percent of the records entered contained an error, with the result that innocent people have been tarred with criminality, thus making it hard for them to get jobs. It’s also difficult to get the authorities to correct their mistake. That is just one of the many forms of collateral damage inflicted by the surveillance state.

I do not get the sense that Clark is a libertarian seeking to chop down the British Megastate, but a fairly ordinary bloke who refuses to believe its propaganda that expansive government programs are necessary for safety. His demonstration that the Security State is an invasive, costly, counterproductive humbug is perfectly aligned with the libertarian critique of the State, however. Just as it is a mistake to turn to government for safety, so is it a mistake to turn to it for education, for economic progress, for moral uplift, and so forth.

  • George Leef is the former book review editor of The Freeman. He is director of research at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.