Friday, September 19, 2014

Eye on you - Americans have had enough with totalitarian policies

Apple’s decision to make it impossible for the company to hand over information on users of iPhones or iPads to police is welcome. The company has introduced encryption that allows only users of the devices to gain access to the data in them.

Apple has found a neat way around the dilemma of having to comply with court orders obliging it to deliver such data while simultaneously respecting their clients’ privacy.

Newspaper reports placed the decision in the context of a Supreme Court ruling several months ago that in most cases police need a search warrant to access information stored on mobile phones. As National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed last year, the government has had widespread access to the mobile telephone data of Americans, often with only cursory legal oversight.

A former FBI agent quoted by The Washington Post described the Apple move as “problematic,” because it will make it much more difficult for law enforcement to collect evidence from people’s telephones. Perhaps, but the government and police have only themselves to blame, as their Orwellian behavior in recent years has increasingly outraged the general public.

Pushback against the government and law enforcement is long overdue. Ever since Snowden spilled the beans, major technology companies have worried about their bottom line. Realizing the negative backlash from consumers to news that technology companies were sharing their personal information with the government, the companies began resisting government requests. Apparently only the free market reminded them there was a constitutional right to privacy.

However, the broader message is that America has changed dramatically in recent years, with the government having the means to gain near-totalitarian insight into its citizens. America remains a democracy, so one should explain: While the system allows for protests and condemnation of the state’s actions, the technical means the state has at its disposal allow it to survey virtually every aspect of people’s lives, all the time. 

Nor is this hyperbole. Certainly, Americans are protected by their domestic legislation. But as Snowden revealed, many of them were also swept up in the government’s surveillance net, though this was perfectly illegal. Meanwhile, non-Americans all over the world continue to be targets of American snooping, with very little likelihood that this situation will change.

The American government is doubtless not alone in eavesdropping on citizens. But looking at the United States today it’s hard to believe that it is the democratic powerhouse it once was. The gradual accumulation by the government and by law enforcement of powers hitherto inconceivable in a democratic system is truly alarming, and chilling.

Take the growth of militarized police departments in the country. The consequences were on display during the recent standoff between demonstrators and police in Ferguson, Missouri, after an unarmed teenager was shot by an officer. Initially, the police deployed atop armored personnel carriers, pointing military-grade weapons at the public. When police behave like an occupying army, something is very wrong. 

This was hardly an exception. All over America the trend has been toward more militarized and invasive police forces. Reports of policemen shooting citizens, or pets, is a regular occurrence. Until a court recently ruled otherwise, the police would routinely arrest people caught filming their activities. In a notorious episode in Hawthorne, California, the police did a two-step: they cuffed a man for filming them then proceeded to shoot his dog.

While this may not seem to have anything to do with government surveillance, it has very much to do with a society that has granted the authorities vast powers to which they are not entitled. That Americans are beginning to fight back is reassuring, but the government is still gathering massive amounts of information on citizens, eroding constitutional principles and sending a message that its eyes are everywhere.

Americans abroad have felt this with the so-called Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, or FATCA, which enrolls foreign financial institutions into a program to spy on the accounts of American citizens. Banks and other financial institutions are obliged to report annually on these accounts, even when one of the account holders may be a non-American – or else 30% of their American transactions are withheld.

Such activities have prompted thousands of Americans to relinquish their nationality. That’s because most people don’t take kindly to banks reporting on how they manage their own money, while many foreign financial institutions are refusing to open accounts for Americans, as it has become too costly.

The list goes on – from civil forfeiture, where the police arbitrarily confiscate the money or property of people it has detained (but not necessarily charged with a crime), to the Transportation Security Administration’s unexplained searches of individuals after their flight has landed. This makes one wonder what has gotten into America. Why has a country with a strong tradition of civil liberties and a bill of rights allowed itself to become a repository of official abuse and stupidity?

If America acts in such a way, you can expect much of the world to follow suit. America and Americans may not be particularly preoccupied with democracy in the world during these isolationist days, but if democracy is to do better globally, then it probably has to do better in America first.

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