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You Are Being Watched, Closely, Now

The Orwellian fantasies of shadowy government domination through surveillance have come true. Thanks to the USA Patriot Act, your legal activities are being analyzed for suspicious behavior without warrant or reason. Political figures are being monitored more closely than under J. Edgar Hoover. Adam Davidson of NPR reports:

Banks monitor even the most mundane transactions…. Banks monitor every transaction. Every one, no matter how small…. “Your transaction is being transferred to the bank and it will be loaded into our transaction monitoring system and we will actually add this transaction together with several other types of transaction that you’ve done recently.” The software is checking to see if maybe that $4 is part of a pattern…. The report goes to a bank’s compliance officer, listing all recent suspicious transactions. Every transaction is given a numerical score…. The computer makes the score based on who is making the transaction, where does he come from, who is he associated with, what else is he up to. Every bank customer has, somewhere, in some computer database, a risk assessment score…. It also checks a bunch of lists. Are you on a terror watch list? A list of criminals?… A PEP — banks really do use that term — is anybody with political power. That means a Nigerian General, a U.S. Senator, or say the Governor of New York. And any PEP — any Politically Exposed Person — is monitored more carefully…. The Patriot Act forced banks to more closely monitor suspicious activity.

The following is a graph showing the number of these reports sent to the government by year (data are updated every six months here).

Suspicious Activity Reports to the Government, 1996-2007

Surveillance of Americans without the constitutionally-mandated warrant has become exponential in nature. Consider this past Monday’s Wall Street Journal report on domestic spying by the National Security Agency:

Two former officials familiar with the data-sifting efforts said they work by starting with some sort of lead, like a phone number or Internet address. In partnership with the FBI, the systems then can track all domestic and foreign transactions of people associated with that item — and then the people who associated with them, and so on, casting a gradually wider net. An intelligence official described more of a rapid-response effect: If a person suspected of terrorist connections is believed to be in a U.S. city — for instance, Detroit, a community with a high concentration of Muslim Americans — the government’s spy systems may be directed to collect and analyze all electronic communications into and out of the city.

The haul can include records of phone calls, email headers and destinations, data on financial transactions and records of Internet browsing. The system also would collect information about other people, including those in the U.S., who communicated with people in Detroit.

That’s right: collecting and analyzing “all electronic communications into and out of” a city. No warrants. No probable cause for the people being watched. Just living in a city that has a high concentration of the wrong sort of person leads to community-wide surveillance. This kind of surveillance is exponential in nature, too, because it doesn’t stop there. Start with the target population: all people living in the city of Detroit, to follow this example. That’s 920,000 people. Then “the people who associated with them, and so on, casting a gradually wider net.” Multiply 920,000 by the number of associations of the sort being monitored to get an idea of the scale of warrantless surveillance in the United States.

Those with political power in this country are watching you. What will they do with the knowledge they gain? Can we trust people in power? What kind of choices do we have?

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