Citizen snoops

November 12, 2007 at 3:00 am Leave a comment

Kim photoWell, enough of LOLCats and maps for the moment, great fun though they were. And clearly LOLCats was a lot of fun for the 1,204 people so far who have checked out yesterday’s post on the History of LOLCats. But for now…back onto my pet topics of privacy, surveillance and eroding freedoms. Expect quite a few posts on these issues this week. I was in the bank the other day, waiting my turn, when a poster caught my eye. Something along the lines of this: if you see anyone acting suspiciously or you hear anything that might indicate suspicious activity will take place….inform the police. I’ve noted that average Joe Citizen is increasingly expected to be the first line of defense in the war against terrorists.

Since 9/11, we’ve become a society in the grip of fear – fear of an unexpected terrorist attack; fear of anything or anyone “different”; we are encouraged to watch out for “suspicious activity”. Every Federal Election we have in Australia (our next one is November 24) there is a call to beware, watch out – in 2001, it was the “children overboard” scandal with allegations by Howard that asylum seekers making their way to Australia by boat were throwing children overboard. It was more like “truth overboard”. Then we had the Tampa incident, which basically resulted in the Federal Government calling for stricter border control measures to protect us from the unknown and whipped up a fear of illegal immigrants and evil asylum seekers.

For the 2007 election, it seems we’re being urged to fear an inexperienced Labor Government that would wreak havoc on Australia’s stable economy with its 11 years of economic growth. Thankfully, there’s no call to be wary of illegal immigrants lurking in the shadows or terrorists about to pounce with their weapons of mass destruction (well, not yet anyway).

So I came across this interesting piece by Bruce Schneier (via Boing Boing) called The War On The Unexpected. Here’s the opening paragraph:

“We’ve opened up a new front on the war on terror. It’s an attack on the unique, the unorthodox, the unexpected; it’s a war on different. If you act different, you might find yourself investigated, questioned, and even arrested — even if you did nothing wrong, and had no intention of doing anything wrong. The problem is a combination of citizen informants and a CYA attitude among police that results in a knee-jerk escalation of reported threats”.

Basically, it’s what I saw in the bank – if you see something, squeal. It plants a subliminal notion in our mind that our fellow citizens are to be looked at with a high degree of suspicion. But as the article point outs, average Joe Citizen is not trained or equipped to know the difference between a bomb and a bat detector (apparently, the UK police blew up a bat detector, which had been placed under a bridge to monitor the nocturnal creature’s calls. A concerned citizen rang the police suspecting the bat stuff was a bomb). Of course, the media hype up supposed terrorist threats and politicians are only concerned with covering their butts in the event something does happen. So we face random bag searches; ridiculous bans on liquids and gels you can take onto an aircraft; and fear-mongering politics.

Schneier makes the really good point that people in jobs charged with some notion of authority, such as security guards, police or flight attendants, face a dilemma. If someone reports they have seen an item that could be a bomb or they’ve overheard some suspicious conversation, what do they do: ignore or escalate? If it’s a false alarm, the person will be praised for “doing the right thing, just in case”. And the person he or she escalates to, further escalates and creates a chain of escalation. All in an attempt to cover the proverbial.

And what I think is really scary is a new Federal US law that allows for passengers, who suspect that another passenger is acting nervously or suspiciously, to report any concerns to cabin crew without fear of being sued by the hapless subject of the complaint. Known as the “good faith” law, it was passed by Congress on July 27, 2007. A person’s concern only needs to be based on “”objectively reasonable suspicion” and this term is not defined. So taking an extreme viewpoint (hey, maybe not so extreme) if a nervous traveller spots someone on the plane who is wearing a turban or overhears someone speaking in a Middle Eastern language, then the mind-set or emotional state of that skittish traveller could be classed as “objectively reasonable suspicion” because they’re freaking out over possible bomb plots.

I’m not saying that genuine threats don’t occur or that occasionally a citizen gets it right and reports a real threat. But I think that our current climate of whipping up fear in the shadows is creating a society that is harking back to one we’d rather forget – Nazi Germany – where average citizens were encouraged to report anything unacceptable to their local party chief. Personally, I think we should refuse to be terrorised.

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Entry filed under: Privacy, Surveillance society.

History of LOLCats The efficacy of surveillance

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