10 May 2012
The early 18th-century British philosopher, social reformer, and co-founder of the celebrated philosophical school of Utilitarianism, Bentham was known for his unconventional ideas.
Like many self-styled progressive thinkers of
his age, Bentham expended a considerable amount of energy dreaming up new
ways to use the power of the state to protect private citizens from their
own alleged follies.
Derived from Greek roots that mean “all-seeing,” Bentham’s Panopticon was a building designed to house many people in close quarters whose rooms were so configured that a central authority, using a system of tubes and mirrors, could keep every inmate under constant surveillance.
The Panopticon concept could be applied to prisons, factories, or any place where large numbers of people would live or work in close quarters.
The energetic Bentham tried to persuade the British government to let him design a Panopticon prison, but was ultimately unsuccessful.
Although he managed to persuade Prime Minister
William Pitt the Younger of the Panopticon’s potential, Pitt’s successor
shut down the project.
A decade after the defining crisis of our era,
the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the United States of America is on the verge
of becoming a Panopticon society, with powers of state surveillance far
beyond the most fevered imaginings of Bentham and fellow pre-modern
The so-called Utah Data Center, operated by the National Security Agency, will occupy more than a million square feet when it becomes operational sometime next year. Within its ultra-secure perimeter, surveillance on a scale never before achieved will be carried out, of a vast array of digital communications - cellphone conversations, e-mails, Google searches, and the like - both on foreign and domestic soil.
Thanks to significant (and highly classified)
advances in decryption technology, coupled with unprecedented supercomputing
power, the new facility will be the nerve center for near-total surveillance
capabilities over hundreds of millions of Americans. If the Utah Data Center
fulfills it ominous potential, the cherished American right to privacy will
have no more substance.
The first attempt to create what New York Times columnist William Safire called “computer dossiers on 300 million Americans” was launched in 2002.
Under the leadership of John Poindexter, former National Security Advisor under Ronald Reagan, the Information Awareness Office (IAO) was created within the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
Its goal, well-publicized at the time, was “total information awareness,” the warrantless compilation of vast databases on the private financial activities and communications of every single American - their credit card activity, e-mails, social networks, phone calls, airline ticket purchases, car rentals, and so forth.
This data would then be analyzed to look for
suspicious patterns of behavior, evidence of potential terrorist activity.
By 2003, the public and congressional hue and
cry over what was transparently an extra-constitutional program had become
so great that Congress officially defunded the IAO.
While Congress tried to stipulate that none of the new tools being developed could be used against American citizens or on American soil, the drive to develop more powerful supercomputers with the ability to compile more and more comprehensive data profiles of anybody, anywhere, continued throughout the last decade.
And it is by no means clear whether the federal government did, in fact, refrain from spying on its own citizens during that period; if the testimony of certain disgruntled former NSA employees is to believed, quite the opposite is true.
According to William Binney, a former senior cryptographer and mathematician at the NSA, the storied and notoriously closemouthed security agency has systematically flouted and circumvented all congressional limits on intelligence gathering ever since 9/11, ignoring in some cases restrictions on spying on Americans that date from the post-Watergate era.
Speaking of the launching of “warrantless wiretapping” soon after 9/11, Binney, who resigned in disgust after four decades of code breaking, did not mince words.
Toys for Tracking Us
The NSA also has the ability to eavesdrop on telephone conversations in real time, whenever it deems appropriate. In the months and years following 9/11, any excuse would do, especially for family members abroad calling home to the United States.
Adrienne J. Kinne, who worked as a voice interceptor for the NSA both before and after the 9/11 attacks, told Wired,
Journalists working overseas were routinely eavesdropped upon whenever they called their families stateside.
Kinne likened the practice to finding someone’s
personal diary and going through it.
Accordingly, what has been characterized as nothing less than a modern-day Manhattan Project, the High Productivity Computing Systems program, was begun in 2004 to develop computers with just such a capacity.
That the research and development for the
project was and is being carried out at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in
Tennessee - the same place where uranium was enriched for the first atomic
bombs - is perhaps an unintended irony. But this time around, America’s best
and brightest are devising a superweapon not for deployment against a
distant foreign military power, but against our own citizens, to finally
ensure that any degree of privacy whatsoever can be breached by Washington’s
An unclassified program at Oak Ridge produced
the so-called “Jaguar,” an upgraded
Cray XT5 supercomputer that clocked in
as the world’s fastest in 2009 - at a rate of 1.75 petaflops. A top-secret
program, also at Oak Ridge, has reputedly created machines faster still,
whose exact capabilities remain a closely guarded secret.
When such mind-boggling computing power becomes available, as it eventually must (consider that the world’s official fastest computer as of this writing is a Japanese supercomputer operating at more than 10 petaflops), current encryption protocols like the AES will become obsolete.
If the NSA manages to develop such a capability
in secret, as it clearly aims to do, private-sector encryption will be none
the wiser, leaving essentially all encrypted communications as bare to
government code-breakers as the Germans’ best codes in World War II
eventually were to the Allies.
And the supercomputers that are to dismantle the
final barricades protecting communications privacy will be no less a power
trump card in the hands of the state than nuclear weapons have proven to be
for the world’s elite military powers.
The advent of unmanned drones, a legacy of the
war in Afghanistan, will soon transform law enforcement at every level. For
the cost of one police helicopter that can only be in one place at a time, a
given jurisdiction could deploy dozens of remotely piloted drones to overfly
restive neighborhoods and keep tabs on backyards and open windows as well as
U.S. Customs and Border Protection already operate nine Predator-type drones, chiefly for border surveillance, under four long-term FAA certificates.
But the new legislation in effect orders the FAA
to develop an expedited protocol, by year’s end, for authorizing the use of
unmanned drones by law enforcement at every level, as well as any other
government agency (read: Homeland Security, one agency that has made no
secret of its desire to operate a fleet of drones in domestic airspace) that
wants to use them.
By one estimate, once the FAA floodgates are
opened, American skies may be populated with as many as 30,000 drones by the
end of this decade, all busily keeping tabs on any activity not carried out
in basements or behind closed doors and covered windows.
Backscatter imaging machines, which digitally strip-search passengers as they pass through security, have proliferated rapidly and will soon be found in every commercial airport in the land, if the TSA has any say in the matter. These machines produce finely detailed images of naked bodies, images with high enough resolution to display colostomy bags, breast prostheses, and every intimate detail of the human body.
Those who object may opt out of being digitally
strip-searched - and must instead submit to intrusive pat-downs in which TSA
agents will touch the most intimate parts of the body.
A recent Supreme Court decision upholding the
“right” of police to strip-search anyone arrested for any reason (the
plaintiff, Albert Florence, was strip-searched twice after being arrested
for an unpaid traffic fine) gives legal countenance to the dangerous notion
that state-sanctioned strip-searches of anyone, anywhere, anytime are
perfectly acceptable in the post 9/11 world.
History shows that the use of forced nudity by a state that is
descending into fascism is powerfully effective in controlling and subduing
Enslaved women were sold naked on the blocks in the American
south, and adolescent male slaves served young white ladies at table in the
south, while they themselves were naked: their invisible humiliation was a
trope for their emasculation. Jewish prisoners herded into concentration
camps were stripped of clothing and photographed naked, as iconic images of
that Holocaust reiterated.
Laws and rulings such as [the recent Supreme
Court ruling upholding strip searches of anyone arrested] are clearly
designed to bring the conditions of Guantanamo, and abusive detention, home.
Adherence to the letter of this amendment - which stipulates that the,
...would appear to preclude warrantless
surveillance by drones and supercomputer algorithms, as well as digital and
literal strip-searches without probable cause by airport authorities and law
It was Congress, after all, that produced the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012 (NDAA), which President Obama coyly signed on the last day of 2011, when the nation was preoccupied with holiday celebrations.
This act gave legal cover to the actions of the
U.S. government since 9/11 in detaining indefinitely and without trial
persons alleged to have committed hostile acts against the United States.
The NDAA not only explicitly authorizes such detentions (in section 1021)
but also (section 1022) requires that detainees under this provision be held
in military custody, either within the United States or on foreign soil.
The specious grounds for this ruling are the possibility that someone arrested could have a weapon or contraband concealed somewhere on or inside his body, thereby posing a threat to authorities and other inmates.
For once, the “liberal” minority got it right.
She might well have added that people - even criminals - generally do not walk around with weapons and narcotics concealed inside their bodies, in anticipation of possible arrest and imprisonment.
It is patently absurd to justify strip searches
of traffic violators as though they were hardened criminals trying to
smuggle contraband to others “on the inside.” Yet that is precisely the kind
of non-logic that undergirds the Supreme Court’s latest usurpation.
The long-feared “garrison state” is coming into being on American soil before our very eyes, with the approval, tacit or overt, of millions of Americans who believe that the only way to guarantee national security is to deprive us of personal security (the Fourth Amendment, after all, protects the “right of the people to be secure” against government encroachment on a personal level).
In a coming day, unless the tide of Big
Government is stemmed, we will all find ourselves living in a hi-tech
Panopticon stretching from sea to shining sea.