L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 321, May 29, 2005
"Here come the spoilers"
Wake Up, America!
Special to TLE
I see a lot of movies because I like movies. One of the reasons I enjoy them so much is that I have the ability to suspend disbelief for a couple of hours and so totally immerse myself in a film. The better the movie is, the more completely involved in the story I become. But at the heart of all of the thrills and chills (or even the heartbreak) is the core knowledge that it's only a movie. That keeps any horror from being overwhelming even as I gasp along with the actors on the silver screen.
I don't dream a lot (or at least I don't remember if I do), which is unfortunate for me. Dreams are sort of like movies in your mind, and on those rare occasions that they come to me, they do so in full blown technicolor. But however real a dream seems while I'm having it, I can wake up with my heart pounding and my breath quickened and calm myself with the knowledge that it's just a dream.
In recent months, I've found that I'm not as comforted as I once was by reassuring myself that some horror is "only a movie," or that some night fright is "just a dream." While I could pretend that's some testament to my own vivid imagination or to a filmmaker's formidible gift, the fact is that that's not the case. While movies and dreams resemble reality but with subtle (sometimes not so subtle!) differences, it's a lot more frightening when reality begins to resemble some of our scariest horror movies or nightmares. Think I'm dreaming? Consider:
I thought that Minority Report [DVD or VHS] was a heck of a good movie as far as movies go. But in the world of the near future, I saw some frightening details that I hoped would remain in the realm of Hollywood fantasy. While police are searching for a fugitive, they set loose handfuls of robotic cameras that crawl everywhere and provide live camera feeds for the cops. In another essentially throw-away scene, the hero of the film is walking through a shopping mall and, as his retinas are scanned and he's identified by store after store, a voice notes that he'd previously purchased a certain pair of pants, and that perhaps today he'd consider this certain type of shirt. Even as he runs, the suspect really isn't hard to track because cameras are everywhere, and his retina scans are on file. And then there's the fact that he becomes a suspect in the first place not because he's committed a crime, but because the authorities believe that he might.
But just a few years after the release of Minority Report, there have been news stories about tiny cameras and microphones contained in "balls" that the police can toss in to a room or a building so as to provide a picture of what's happening inside. The so-called "Eye-Ball" will be delivered for use by police and government agencies starting this spring. Although such technology might under some circumstances keep the police safer, what would it represent for the rest of us? For example, in the kind of emergency in which such a device might be used (a hostage situation, for example), would warrants come before or after the factif, indeed, they come at all? What about evidence gathered on camera or via the embedded microphone? Would wiretap or other types of electronic surveillance warrants be required, or would these, too, be bypassed in favor of expedience? How about the incidental admission of guilt that might be captured? Is that a legitimate confession?
Frequent or preferred shopper cards have, of course, been around for a few years. In exchange for some dubious savings, the cards (among other things) track your purchases so that stores can send you advertisements and coupons tailored to your previously indicated interests and needs. But now some grocery chains actually allow you to pay for those recorded purchases via a fingerprint, a technology that's rapidly expanding and touted as being "convenient" and "secure." An ongoing test project in a European supermarket chain employs RFID chips and a shopping cart fitted with electronics that will say hello to you, recall what you bought last time you were in the store, and offer to direct you to various goods on this shopping trip. And just this month, the Orlando, Florida airport announced it would be using iris scans to monitor employees and others on the premises. All of these systems, of course, must capture data in order to work. And once the data is captured, who can say how it will eventually be used? And even if the data is used legitimately, is convenience worth the corresponding lack of privacy?
The vast majority of us, much like the man in Minority Report, aren't criminals. Yet each and every one of us are, like him, apparently suspects in crimes that we might potentially commit. If that weren't the case, why is it that each and every one of us are subject to checks under the PATRIOT Act before we can open a bank account? How come each and every one of us must be checked for contraband before we can fly? Why is it that merely paying for something in a way the authorities view as "unusual" (insert "pay in cash" here) makes us a suspect in drug crimes or worse? How is it that most authorities and too many citizens view DNA dragnets as an acceptable way to catch criminals, demanding that we each prove our innocence rather than finding a prime suspect and then proving his or her guilt?
I liked the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Total Recall [DVD or VHS] quite a bit, too. Schwarzenegger plays a man who is apparently the victim of some sort of brainwashing. His memories begin returning to him in bits and pieces and, as a result, he finds himself being chased by some unsavory goons for reasons he doesn't yet understand. At the time, one of the coolest scenes in the film involved a chase that went through a subway station. As the characters entered the tunnel, they went past a security checkpoint during which they appeared behind a sort of x-ray screen that showed clearly any weapons they might be carrying.
The unfortunate reality of the movie X-ray machine is far worse than seeing the animated skeletons in the movie. Instead, new security x-ray machines will essentially see the nude bodies of travelers under their clothes. Police and security agents from around the world have been found to be violating good taste if not the law with security cameras. How much worse could our embarrassment and humiliation be with widespread installation of equipment that would essentially allow some to watch live nudie shows all day?
Although the memory wiping and the memory implantation of Total Recall may yet remain fantasy, it's not likely to do so for long. There are already applications undergoing development and testing that are wiring brains directly to computers for such reasons as computer operation for quidriplegics. Video games and training simulators are likely follow-up projects, and memory implantation for educational reasons is probably not too far behind. As fantastic as it may sound, some experts believe that's not too far off, either. Now consider what it would mean to control the database that provides those memories...!
It almost goes without saying that the hero of Total Recall is tracked much as is the man character in Minority Report. The same is trueor almost soof all of us today. Most new cell phones contain GPS technology, ostensibly so a person in dire straits can dial 9-1-1 and emergency personnel can find them even if the person who calls is unable to speak or doesn't know where he or she is. And how could we possibly neglect to mention the already-FDA-approved implantable RFID chip?
These chips, which are accepted by some as a good way to carry important medical records with us everywhere we go, will certainly not stop with medical records! In fact, they've already gone beyond that with GPS-enabled versions having been implanted in some South American and Mexican individuals who believe they might be at risk for kidnappings. There's no stretch involved whatsoever to believe that the next big push will likely be for us to implant our children "just in case" they're either lost or kidnapped themselves. And, of course, the fact that the government will be able to monitor their whereabouts even when they're not lost or kidnapped is purely incidental...
No movie fan could be unaware of the myriad films pumped out by Hollywood that all involve some variation of an armed guard at a gate saying (with or without a German or Russian accent), "Your papers, please!" Those who man such gates are, of course, the bad guys in these movies, and rightfully so. In the real world, countries that employed such measures were widely viewed as tyrannical, and their citizens lived in fear. It's our very revulsion, codified again and again in the movies, that makes a recent Congressional action even more difficult to understand: the passage of the REAL ID Act.
Although the measure is said to be one needed to control illegal immigration, the reality of it is that it's intended to control each and every one of us. None of us will be immune from the effects of this legislation which effectively establishes a national ID card. Some gunowners believe (with some good reason) that they'll be a particular target once these cards go into effect. That's because, by using their new ID, their purchases will finally be recorded in a national database, something they've fought strenuously for years (and which the government has almost as strenuously wanted for just about as long). Even worse than trading privacy for security or civil liberties for some form of safety is the fact that, once instituted, these cards won't work for their stated purpose. They will, however, do just fine for what they were intended to do, and that is to ensure that the government can keep tabs on its own citizens.
We're already forced to undergo security checks and present ID when we travel by air; such measures are in the process of being phased in for train travel as well. Rest assured that buses will follow, and then so will private vehicles. You may believe that it's inconceivable that we'll eventually require travel permits even if we drive our own personal vehicles, but wouldn't each of us have considered a national ID card an impossibility not so very long ago? You may believe that, if you commit no crime, you're not at risk. But you're already being forced to prove your innocence on a regular basis whether you choose to consider that to be the case or not. (Peed in a cup lately? Taken a commercial air flight? Opened a bank account?) In general, the people aren't out of control; the government is out of control in its constant efforts to be in control.
This isn't a movie, though the script sometimes reads like one, even up to and including the surprise plot twists. Unfortunately, the real surprise so far has been the rapidity with which freedom is being dissipated or discarded. At this late date, the biggest surprise of all would be if we could somehow restore our freedom. And this isn't a nightmare. Every horrifying thing you've read here is true, very real, and here today. And yet many Americans remain peacefully and all too passively asleep. We must take control and responsibility now unless we wish to completely give up all control into the hands of the government.
We've seen a few false dawns, and heard a few birds begin to sing an early warning. But the passage of the REAL ID Act is a loud and clanging alarm. The morning of the last days of freedom in America is here. We must wake up and see the reality of what's happening to us and our precious liberties. If we fail to do so,r the nightmare will become the permanent reality for us all, and liberty the long lost dream.