Nonstop Scrutiny, as Orwell Foresaw

By MICHIKO KAKUTANI

NO PLACE TO HIDE
By Robert O'Harrow Jr.
348 pages. Free Press. $26.

New York Times

January 26, 2005

Picture "Minority Report" combined with Orwell's "1984" and Francis Ford Coppola's "Conversation": in an effort to prevent future crimes and predict what certain individuals are likely to do, the government has begun working with high-tech titans to keep tabs on the populace.

One company has come up with a digital identity system that has tagged every adult American with a unique code. Another company is intent on gaining control of all records - including state and local files, financial information, employee dossiers, DNA data and criminal background checks - that define our identity. In addition to iris scanners, voice analyzers and fingerprint readers, there now exist face recognition machines and cameras that can identify an individual by how he or she walks. One government group is working on infrared detectors that could register heat signals around people's eyes, indicating an autonomic "fight or flight" response; another federal agency has floated a proposal to assess risk by examining airline passengers' brain waves with "noninvasive neuro-electric sensors."

This surveillance state is not a futuristic place conjured in a Philip K. Dick novel or "Matrix"-esque sci-fi thriller. It is post-9/11 America, as described in Robert O'Harrow Jr.'s unnerving new book, "No Place to Hide" - an America where citizens' "right to be let alone," as Justice Louis Brandeis of the Supreme Court once put it, is increasingly imperiled, where more and more components of our daily lives are routinely monitored, recorded and analyzed.

These concerns, of course, are hardly new. Way back in 1964, in "The Naked Society," Vance Packard warned about encroachments on civil liberties and the growing threat to privacy posed by new electronic devices, and in 1971, in "The Assault on Privacy," Arthur R. Miller warned that advances in information technologies had given birth to "a new social virus - 'data-mania.' " The digital revolution of the 1990's, however, exponentially amplified these trends by enabling retailers, marketers and financial institutions to gather and store vast amounts of information about current and potential customers. And as Mr. O'Harrow notes, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, "reignited and reshaped a smoldering debate over the proper use of government power to peer into the lives of ordinary people."

Some of the material in "No Place to Hide" is familiar from news coverage (most notably, the author's own articles about privacy and technology for The Washington Post), from a recent ABC News special (made in conjunction with Mr. O'Harrow's reporting) and from recent books like Jeffrey Rosen's "Naked Crowd: Reclaiming Security and Freedom in an Anxious Age" and Christian Parenti's "Soft Cage: Surveillance in America From Slavery to the War on Terror."

Still, Mr. O'Harrow provides in these pages an authoritative and vivid account of the emergence of a "security-industrial complex" and the far-reaching consequences for ordinary Americans, who must cope not only with the uneasy sense of being watched (leading, defenders of civil liberties have argued, to a stifling of debate and dissent) but also with the very palpable dangers of having personal information (and in some cases, inaccurate information) passed from one outfit to another.

Mr. O'Harrow also charts many consumers' willingness to trade a measure of privacy for convenience (think of the personal information happily dispensed to TiVo machines and Amazon.com in exchange for efficient service and helpful suggestions), freedom for security. He reviews the gargantuan data-gathering and data-mining operations already carried out by companies like Acxiom, ChoicePoint and LexisNexis. And he shows how their methods are being co-opted by the government.

The Privacy Act of 1974, enacted in the wake of revelations about covert domestic spying by the F.B.I., the Army and other agencies, gave individuals new rights to know and to correct information that the government was collecting about them, but the government's current predilection for outsourcing data-gathering to private companies has changed the rules of the game.

As Mr. O'Harrow notes: "Among other things, the law restricted the government from building databases of dossiers unless the information about individuals was directly relevant to an agency's mission. Of course, that's precisely what ChoicePoint, LexisNexis and other services do for the government. By outsourcing the collection of records, the government doesn't have to ensure the data is accurate, or have any provisions to correct it in the same way it would under the Privacy Act. There are no limits on how the information can be interpreted, all this at a time when law enforcement, domestic intelligence and foreign intelligence are becoming more interlinked."

Privacy and civil liberties advocates have put the brakes on some government projects, like the Total Information Awareness initiative promoted by John Poindexter, the former vice admiral (of Iran-contra notoriety), and a surveillance engine known (half jokingly) as the Matrix (for the Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange) that would combine criminal and commercial records in one blindingly fast system. Yet Mr. O'Harrow points out: "The drive for more monitoring, data collection, and analysis is relentless and entrepreneurial. Where one effort ends, another begins, often with the same technology and aims. Total Information Awareness may be gone, but it's not forgotten. Other kinds of Matrix systems are already in the works."

Even now, one mini-me version of Big Brother or another is monitoring Americans' daily lives, from the computer "cookies" that map our peregrinations around the Net, to the MetroCards, E-ZPasses and car-installed Global Positioning System devices that track our travels, to the security cameras that eyeball us at banks and stores. Mr. O'Harrow writes that RFID (radio frequency identification) tags will be attached soon to credit cards, bank passbooks and "anything else that will enable businesses to automatically 'know you' when you arrive," and that several organizations "are working on a standard that would enable every manufactured item in the world to be given a unique ID, at least theoretically."

"Before long," he adds, "our phones, laptop computers, Palm Pilots, watches, pagers and much more will play parts in the most efficient surveillance network ever made. Forget dropping a coin into a parking meter or using a pay phone discreetly on the street. Those days are slipping by. The most simple, anonymous transactions are now becoming datapoints on the vast and growing matrix of each of our lives."

It is an alarming vision of the future uncannily reminiscent of the world imagined by Orwell in "1984": a world where "you had to live - did live, from habit that became instinct - in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized."

It just arrived some two decades later than Orwell predicted.