Bill Totten's Weblog

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Big Brother is Real This Time

by Richard Reeves (December 30 2005)

In democratic countries, what war leads to is not peace but radical reform at home. That is one conclusion of Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (Penguin, 2005) by Tony Judt, one of the most important books of this troubled year.

"World War I had precipitated legislation and social provisions in its wake - if only to deal with the widows, orphans, invalids and unemployed of the immediate postwar years", he writes. "The Second World War transformed both the role of the modern state and the expectations placed upon it ...

"The post-1945 European welfare states varied considerably in the resources they provided and the way they financed them. But certain general points can be made. The provision of social services chiefly concerned education, housing and medical care, as well as urban recreation areas, subsidized public transport, publicly financed art and culture and other indirect benefits of the interventionary state. Social security consisted chiefly of the state provision of insurance - against illness, unemployment, accident and the perils of old age."

So, the great wars created the beginnings and the culmination of modern welfare states, growing from aid to individuals, the alone, the broken and the traumatized, to systems available to all citizens.

What will the war on terrorism produce at home?

The answer to that question seems to be unfolding in Judt's home country, Great Britain, and in the United States, where he teaches at New York University: The great English-speaking democracies are almost inevitably remaking themselves as police states. Changing or ignoring the laws of liberty and instituting more and more invasive technological monitoring of citizens are the new passions of the interventionary state - all in the name of spreading freedom.

While the US government, supported by majorities in national polls, is ignoring laws on oversight of homeland spying, the British are developing systems to literally follow, photographically, every citizen on his or her daily rounds. Big Brother, the fictional invention of a British writer, George Orwell, will be real and functional within a year. The first step, scheduled to be operational next March, will use thousands of cameras linked to government databases to photograph every vehicle entering or leaving London, driving on major highways or stopping for gasoline - and checking those movements against driver's licenses and other government information over two- and five-year periods.

"The new national surveillance network for tracking car journeys", said Steve Conner, science editor of The Independent, "... is already working on ways of automatically recognizing human faces by computer ... every move recorded and stored by machines". Police also project a need for more complicated surveillance systems, schemes aided by hidden computer chips in new cars and trucks.

The system, originally planned as a crime-prevention and detection system, has been in development for 25 years. In Britain, as well as in the United States, police quickly realized that such innovations as automatic cash machines and EZ-pass readers provided a rough map of many people's lives - and led to thousands upon thousands of criminal arrests. But there is no doubt that terrorism incidents and threats will speed development and make what were once considered unacceptable invasions of privacy more acceptable to the British - and, one day, to Americans as well.

"Terrorism" is mentioned in every conversation and report about such innovations, but fear is less critical to such systems than are advances in technology that simply make it simpler to track humans, as if computer chips were also secretly hidden in our own bodies. On hearing of the British plans, I thought that it was a spectacular update to what they did in the bad old days in Moscow: Police stood on little bridges over roadways in and out of the city to record the comings and goings of citizens and foreigners alike. Now they won't even have to wear coats in the cold weather. Technological policing is cheaper, too, and machines don't get pensions.

In interviews, the British police are not particularly secretive about their plans, and digital eyes will certainly make them more effective. But, no matter how well intentioned, this stuff is scary as hell. To quote an American who once lived in London, Benjamin Franklin: "They that would give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety".

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Bill Totten


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