By Other Means

Public Citizen

Public Citizen

What if I told you that nine out of ten terrorist plots in the United States could be thwarted via a simple technological expedient?

It will be easy. At age 12 (or at whatever age he or she enters the United States), every U.S. citizen or visitor will be required to have a tiny tracking chip painlessly implanted in his or her forehead. The chip will be microscopic and almost invisible to the naked eye (although for a small fee, chips will also be made available in a wide variety of sizes, colors, and styles for those who prefer something a bit more decorative). Despite their small size, each chip will be equipped with a GPS, a camera, and an audio-recording device. The chips will be powered by the body’s own heat, supplemented during the day by solar energy. They will be waterproof, tamper-proof, and non-removable, and they will relay a constant stream of real-time information to computers maintained by government law enforcement personnel.

Don’t worry: These government personnel won’t be snooping on you for prurient purposes. The data from your chip will only be accessed when the government has reasonable grounds to believe your data might be relevant to an authorized investigation into "known or unknown terrorists" who might be operating in the United States — the same standard currently imposed by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for the collection of telephone records. (True, that’s "metadata," but really: What data isn’t meta?) For security reasons, the existence and rationale for any such investigations and data collection will naturally have to remain classified — sorry about that! But careful protocols will be in place to ensure that the number of people with access to your chip’s data is limited and that your data are protected from misuse.

Granted, since "unknown terrorists" are by definition unknown, and since almost anything might reasonably be imagined to be "relevant" to their equally unknown plots, a lot of people’s chip data will end up being examined. Pretty much everyone’s, in fact. But when it comes to our nation’s security, we can’t afford to take chances. You don’t want another 9/11, do you?

Universal chipping will bring additional benefits, as well. Among other things, it will have a powerful deterrent effect on ordinary crime: Only the mentally ill and the dangerously impulsive will commit crimes when they know their every word and every action is being recorded. What’s more, universal chipping will make lost people and objects a thing of the past. Stranded rock-climbers and hikers will easily be found by search-and-rescue teams. Absent-minded people who can’t remember where they left their car keys can request copies of their own recorded data and retrace their steps until the lost keys are found. Even sin will be reduced: Spouses can sign pre-nuptial agreements pledging to share their tracking data with one another, thus reducing infidelity. Our world will be convenient, virtuous, and safe.

It will take a little longer to place chips on those who live in foreign countries, but that will come, too. Once other governments see how peaceful and law-abiding America has become, they’ll want to chip their own citizens. We’ll work out information-sharing protocols with our allies — or hack into their chip software if they get nationalistic and stubborn on us. Some states and individuals will be holdouts, of course, but we’ll find ways to incentivize universal chipping: We’ll tie U.S. foreign assistance to participation in chipping programs, for instance. If we have to — but only if we have to — we’ll find ways to chip foreigners by stealth: We’ll design chips that can be implanted during routine vaccinations, ingested with food, or inhaled through the air.

Really, it’s for everyone’s benefit.

It sounds like the stuff of dystopian science fiction — and as far as I know, such chipping technologies don’t yet exist (and no one, not even NSA Director Keith Alexander, is advocating their development). But don’t kid yourself: As the burgeoning NSA surveillance scandal should remind us, that world is right around the corner.

Consider the world we’ve already created for ourselves, with absolutely no help from the NSA: We already have those ubiquitous tracking cookies that nearly every website we visit implants in our computers. Your cell phone, your iPad, and your car’s GPS system track your physical location. Traffic cameras, store security cameras, and EZ Pass toll readers add more layers of tracking and may soon be networked, allowing officials (and the companies that maintain the systems, and computer hackers) to follow the movements of specific cars and people. Facial recognition software makes it easy for anyone from the government to marketers to your old college fling to find pictures of you online and figure out where — and with whom — you like to hang out.

Your credit card records your purchases. Health insurance companies keep tabs on your medical records. Google knows your deepest desires. You store your data in "the cloud," which is roughly as secure as literally throwing your information up into the sky. (Remember: It’s not your cloud. The physical servers that make up "the cloud" are owned by private companies, and current law treats all data left on a server for more than 180 days as "abandoned" and thus fair game for snoopers.) And you just can’t resist the lure of social media, can you?

How long do you think it will be before someone — most likely someone paid by the U.S. government, but perhaps by a foreign state, a large corporation, or any number of unscrupulous private actors — comes up with a better and more efficient way to link all that information together, more or less in real time?

Throw in emerging government capabilities, and the possibility of truly universal surveillance gets even closer. Consider the military’s "Gorgon Stare," a persistent wide-area airborne surveillance system that aggregates the images from multiple drone-borne cameras. Gorgon Stare, which is already in use in Afghanistan, enables analysts not only to watch the movement of individuals and vehicles in real time in an area as large as a city, but also to "rewind" to see where people and vehicles of interest have come from. Such systems will soon be able to combine visual data from cameras with data from other kinds of imaging and sensing devices. It’s all a great help when it comes to figuring out where those IEDs are coming from, but don’t you think we’ll soon be tempted to use these technologies in other places and for other purposes?

Despite my general conviction that the end is nigh, I’m not usually paranoid about government surveillance. Maybe that’s because I’ve worked in two presidential administrations and, in my experience, most federal employees — even those in the intelligence community — care about personal privacy as much as anyone else. More to the point, most government officials really, truly have better things to do than monitor your Internet habits just for the heck of it.

But even I start to get nervous when technology gets way out ahead of both ethics and law — when we start to use surveillance technologies not because we really need to but simply because we can, and without much thought for the longer-term consequences.

Reading the latest NSA-related revelations has left me convinced that this is the situation in which we now find ourselves. We’re monitoring Angela Merkel’s communications not because we need to, but because we can. We’re vacuuming up the phone and Internet data of millions of people not because we need to, but because we can.

Asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, George Mallory famously replied, "Because it is there." That’s a bad reason to climb a mountain (remember, Mallory ended up dead) and a worse reason to start scooping up data on everyone under the sun. Yes, the data is there — vast, tempting mountains of data — but that doesn’t mean the government needs to collect and monitor it.

Instead of running at a mindless sprint toward the kind of total surveillance society that would have given George Orwell the chills, we should slow down. More concretely, the president — or Congress, if the president won’t act — should declare a moratorium on existing NSA mass surveillance and data-mining programs. Before we even consider starting them up again, we need to take the time to think through whether these programs are truly a good idea — and whether existing law and policy can prevent both abuse and unintended consequences.

Does the nature of the purported threat — terrorism — justify so much surveillance and intrusion? No one can say, but it’s doubtful. Threat assessments from our own intelligence agencies suggest that the threat from terrorism is far from existential. Administration officials claim that NSA surveillance has thwarted numerous terrorist plots, but the examples they give are fairly minor league. If there’s more, they should say so — and give details.

Against the questionable benefits of mass surveillance, we need to balance its unquestionable harms: most recently, irate allies who are now reconsidering intelligence-sharing agreements with the United States. But the harms of excessive surveillance are also more subtle: Is privacy becoming a fading dream? Do we want to inhabit a world in which there are no secrets? Is a marginal increase in safety and security worth a near-total loss of autonomy? Total surveillance enables total control — and as technology marches on, will we be able to develop adequate legal and procedural safeguards to prevent a slow slide into totalitarianism?

Not if we don’t slow down.