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The Surveillance Fantasies of the New Millennium Became Our Reality

What effect will the ceaseless surveillance of public spaces have on future generations?

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Gizmodo is 20 years old! To celebrate the anniversary, we’re looking back at some of the most significant ways our lives have been thrown for a loop by our digital tools.

The year was 1998. Robert Dean, a labor lawyer based in Washington D.C., was out shopping for some lingerie. His life was about to be turned upside down by a chance encounter with an old classmate. He’d come into possession of some sensitive surveillance material desperately sought after by rogue government agents, footage that would prove radioactive to everyone in his life. Within days, Dean’s marriage and his professional credibility would be destroyed, and one of his oldest friends would be found dead. Dean went on the run, but soon he was hunted. With unlimited access to the world’s most sensitive surveillance equipment, government spies tracked him from D.C. to Baltimore, going as far as to commandeer a spy satellite. They had one goal: kill Dean and retrieve the footage at all costs.

Enemy of the State (Will Smith, Gene Hackman) was a film well received by most critics, though its portrayal of the U.S. government’s surveillance capabilities was viewed by nearly everyone as hokey, if not basically science fiction. The film preyed, a review in the Washington Post said, on the “fear and mistrust” Americans felt toward “Big Brother” — a paranoia that helped the Bruckheimer-Scott production team suspend the disbelief of their audience, even as it exaggerated the technological achievements of the day to a Phildickian proportions. It wasn’t necessarily the overblown use of keyhole satellites or electronic wiretaps directly that made all this spycraft seem preposterous. It was the degree of omniscience these tools seemed to bestow on the film’s cartoonishly sociopathic agents; the ability to effortlessly track the movements of any basically anyone across virtually any distance. These agents could finger Smith’s location at almost any time, down to what floor of a building he was on. They could instantly tap any phone he picked up and any camera he carelessly wandered in front of. “What does that mean?” Smith’s at-first oblivious character screams in frustration. “It means the NSA can read the time off your fucking watch,” Hackman tells him.

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When Enemy of the State debuted, only around 16 percent of Americans carried cellphones. The personal computer market had only penetrated around a third of U.S. households. Electronic mail was practically a novelty outside of major companies and well-funded universities. But this was destined to change within a handful of years. With it, the government’s appetite for tracking and intercepting private conversations both at home and abroad would grow. After Sept. 11, 2001, Congress quickly bestowed the federal government with a sweeping range of surveillance authorities, greatly inflating the exceptions to the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee against “unreasonable searches and seizures.” A careen toward nationalism, confusion and fear, and dreams of retribution combined with dramatic advancements in technology to turn the United States into a veritable surveillance state. Slowly but surely, the government began to avail itself of vast databases containing billions of records that detailed when and where virtually all domestic phone calls were placed. Those connecting beyond U.S. shores were wiretapped at an unprecedented scale. The tools and techniques it developed often required the support and discretion of American businesses. Opposition to the pursuit of total surveillance was framed by the White House as equaling support for the terrorist’s agenda. Fear of being tagged as responsible for the next attack kept most dissenters at bay.

The ability to spontaneously determine a random person’s precise location anywhere in the country, or even within the confines of a single city, was pure science fiction at the start of the millennium. This was a 24th Century capability bestowed through the use of advanced “sensors” aboard the starship Enterprise. It was a superpower of Professor X, on par with an ability to thoughts. Yet the fact that we associated this ability with superheroes and space men isn’t sign of our naivete about the possibilities of the future that was bearing down upon us. It’s a reflection of how secure we felt in our own privacy. Our own ability to move about homes, neighborhoods, and communities unobserved. It’s a reflection of people whose sense of privacy wasn’t complicated by menial tasks like ordering a pizza, sharing a photo, or calling a taxi. Today we understand that even in our own homes, the devices around us are constantly collecting information about where we are and what we’re doing; data that can be exploited by people we’ve never met, right away or maybe years down the line.

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From the turn of the century, Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report is another acclaimed film with an outsized impact on what people thought about the future of surveillance tech. And it remains relevant. It’s constantly brought up in the context of today’s flawed predictive policing initiatives. Alongside the ability to forecast murders—a technology which is likely never to exist—it gave us a look at what life might be like if, every time we walked outside, there were machines constantly scanning our faces. In one scene, a fugitive Tom Cruise steps into a mall where he’s instantly identified by numerous holographic billboards. “The road you’re on, John Anderton, is the one less traveled,” a voice whispers, as Cruise tries and fails to be inconspicuous. The film’s use of facial recognition was not as enormous a leap as it probably seemed to theatergoers. DARPA, the Pentagon’s research and development branch, and NIST, a scientific agency charged with standardizing measurements and controls for technology, were both by then deep in the process of advancing facial recognition, mostly for use in the government’s exorbitant drug wars.

As is invariably the case, the government’s desire for unbridled access to greater and greater surveillance authorities resulted in almost no efforts being made to shield ordinary citizens from the perils of biased AIs and glitchy facial scanning software. Privacy in the United States is a myth. Tools developed and deployed under the pretense of public safety inevitably find their way into the arsenals of private companies motivated purely by profit. Captured by surveillance capitalists, Congress has spent almost five years negotiating the terms of national privacy reforms. Many of the compromises seemingly necessary to pass any bipartisan legislation largely undercut their underlying purpose. Few comprehend the scale of the opportunism faced by users, who are manipulated and deceived in ways unforeseen and unrecognized by most consumer protection or data security laws.

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Competitive tech companies today are wholly reliant on data collection to turn a profit. As a result, most products, including web spaces, are constructed to convince users to expose themselves as much as possible while maintaining an illusory sense of trust. The government knows, too, there’s no law stopping it from just buying up the data that once might’ve required the permission of a judge. Even the most ambitious privacy proposals in Congress so far have conspicuously danced around this issue, exempting anyone so long as they’re working for, with, or on behalf of one of its 18 intelligence agencies.

The word “privacy” itself has become basically meaningless since Spielberg first showed us how far one might have to go to avoid a city full of inescapable retinal scanners. (The answer is ripping your eyes out). Before the new millenium, the term privacy referred to a state that one could fairly easily achieve that was free from any and all external observation. Whatever the dictionary claims that word means today, that’s clearly no longer the case. None of the privacy policies governing nearly all human information actually protect it. They merely describe, in vague and overly technical terms, the many ways in which you can expect to be exploited.

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Millennials could very well be the last generation to recall what it was like before a government or a corporation knew exactly where people were are at all times. It’s a dying breed. By the time the last Zoomer reaches adulthood, our whereabouts at any given moment may be no more a mystery to the government than a known terrorist acting erratically in an airport. We used to reserve this fate solely for ex-cons, tethering them o electronic tracking bracelets. We pay hundreds of dollars for those now voluntarily at the mall. They come with sports bands in colors like “eucalyptus” and “rose gold.”

It’s hard to know what the long term effects of living under a technocratic surveillance state will be. Even in public spaces, people have always been able to move about comfortably without fear of being constantly recorded. A child or teenager today riding a bicycle up and down their own street, without ever leaving their own block, is likely to be recorded from dozens of angles, images of their face traversing the networks of multiple companies with deep government ties. Every doorbell on every home is a potential microphone picking up their voice, from the sidewalk, the middle of the street, even the porch next door.

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In her 2015 book Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness, author Simone Browne offers up as an antecedent to our new existence the realities faced by fugitives and slaves moving about on New York City streets more than two hundred years ago. Being “constantly illuminated,” one begins to internalize an expectation of being watched, she says, resulting in what she calls a “performative sensibility.” “What I am suggesting is that for the fugitive in eighteenth-century New York, such a sensibility would encourage one to perform–in this case perform freedom–even when one was not sure of one’s audience.” The term “illuminated” carries both a figurative and literal meaning, referring not only to a person being denied the right to move about in relative obscurity, but so-called “lantern laws,” which required Black and Native American slaves to carry lit candles after dark wherever they went.

What effect will the ceaseless surveillance of public and private spaces have on future generations? Will they hate us for creating it? Will they get along with the knowledge that their own behavior grows increasingly performative each day; knowing, without continual monitoring, they might choose to speak, behave, and associate differently? Or will they simply live without the knowledge that privacy is something killed off by the ancestors, performing privacy without being haunted by its ghost?