Thursday, August 1, 2013

It's Howard, everywhere you look

It seems it's Howard running things here in the US, wherever you look. You remember Howard Hunter, the guy on the 1980s television series Hill Street Blues? The guy who was a rabid advocate of militarizing the police and acquiring and using every gadget known to the surveillance state? Howard always got it wrong, of course, missing the forest for the trees, making sloppy mistakes (as real-life police constantly do, rushing to batter down doors and shoot up homes and sometimes their inhabitants because they got the wrong address or malicious information (kind of like the military so often do, too, for the same reasons), and incapable of figuring out the situation because common sense has gone out the door with hyped-up threats and stereotypes. And speaking of stereotypes, Howard, of course, would have applauded Zimmerman for killing Trayvon Martin.

Such sloppiness and carelessness with people's lives is only heightened, though, by the increasing disappearance of that little constitutional right that used to be known as "due process." Just the other day we learned of the horrific case of Daniel Chong, a UCSD engineering student who in April 2012 was locked into a 5x8-foot room without water or toilet much less food and "forgotten" for five days--only to be discovered near renal failure (and covered with his own feces). How does a law enforcement agency "forget" a human being they've locked up? Since this appears to have been genuinely unintentional, it signals a blatant disregard for procedure much less a total lack of a sense of responsibility for citizens taken into custody. (Which may actually be more dire in its implications than if he'd been deliberately tortured in this way.) This lack of a sense of responsibility is seen is continual, immoral force in the many, many prisons and jails in every corner of our country.

Why do I say Howard is in charge? I invite you to look at a few of the other such news stories of the last few days. We've had more revelations about what the NSA is able to do (and in fact does)--including the capability of tracking any internet user's every email and website visit. We've learned that Oakland's city government has decided to open a special surveillance center, "The Domain Awareness Center," which, according to the Oakland wiki,
will act as a “fusion center,” aggregating video feeds and real-time data from a number of sources around Oakland. Possible program components include integration of closed-circuit video feeds (CCTV) from all over Oakland, including 700 cameras at Oakland public schools and 135 cameras at the Oakland Coliseum complex. Video and data feeds from all over Oakland would be aggregated at the DAC, then analyzed with license plate recognition software, thermal imaging and body movement recognition software, possibly facial recognition software, and more, all with absolutely no privacy or data-retention policies in place, or substantive debate at the committee or council level about the program.
And then there's the case of the suburban Long Island family who have reported a visit from "the counterterrorism police" arriving at their home in three black SUVs, apparently because they decided that the searches the members of this family had collectively done made them a justifiable target for (further) investigation. See, Michele Catalano was researching pressure cookers (for preparing lentils and quinoa), her husband was shopping around for a backpack, and their son, a teenaged "news junky," had done searches on the Boston marathon bombing. These three series of searches coming from the same ISP endowed them with a suspicious profile--suspicious enough, that is, to warrant a visit from half a dozen armed officers. Here's Michele Catalano:
They mentioned that they do this about 100 times a week. And that 99 of those visits turn out to be nothing. I don’t know what happens on the other 1% of visits and I’m not sure I want to know what my neighbors are up to.

45 minutes later, they shook my husband’s hand and left. That’s when he called me and relayed the story. That’s when I felt a sense of creeping dread take over. What else had I looked up? What kind of searches did I do that alone seemed innocent enough but put together could make someone suspicious? Were they judging me because my house was a mess (Oh my god, the joint terrorism task force was in my house and there were dirty dishes in my sink!). Mostly I felt a great sense of anxiety. This is where we are at. Where you have no expectation of privacy. Where trying to learn how to cook some lentils could possibly land you on a watch list. Where you have to watch every little thing you do because someone else is watching every little thing you do.

All I know is if I’m going to buy a pressure cooker in the near future, I’m not doing it online.

I’m scared. And not of the right things.
99 times out of a hundred? I bet it's a lot less than that, considering that they're bothering people who have the temerity to google pressure cookers, backpacks, and bombings. Anyone who's a writer has got to find this worrisome-- just think of all the things we're constantly running online searches on. Just think of the sort of scenarios we write about. I'm amazed they haven't shown up at my home yet. Am I to take it that it's only a matter of time?

There are many more news items I could mention--we're constantly reading of the consequences of the apparently indissoluble union of technology with surveillance and military applications. When I read a week or so ago about the program used in many US cities to track license plates, I realized that if you write mysteries or thrillers you're probably always out of date. The potential for blackmail, for instance, must have been raised tremendously in the last five years, given the number of secrets most people try to keep from those around them--secrets we used to think the government had no business uncovering. Maybe we should be calling this particular historical era the Age of Surveillance. In any case, writers haven't a chance in the world of keeping ahead of this technology curve.

ETA: Josh Lukin has pointed me to another version of this story, namely that the family's online searches at home didn't trigger the visit, but a "tip" from a former employer: see This article quotes a statement from the police: "Suffolk County Criminal Intelligence Detectives received a tip from a Bay Shore based computer company regarding suspicious computer searches conducted by a recently released employee. The former employee’s computer searches took place on this employee’s workplace computer. On that computer, the employee searched the terms “pressure cooker bombs” and “backpacks.”" That may not be as scary, but it doesn't make me feel better. I'm a writer, after all. I explore all kinds of menace and doom. Should that make me a target for suspicion?

1 comment:

Nancy Jane Moore said...

Brilliant use of Howard to tie this together. It puts a real face on the kind of thinking they're doing.