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Monday, December 24, 2007

Perpetual Surveillance

Have you ever had that anxious feeling that someone was following you? …Well if you have, your emotions have not betrayed you, because virtually everywhere you go in our modern society, you are being watched; from your local grocers compiling a profile of your buying habits to Internet sites tracking your whereabouts on the Web. Wherever you may live or work, there is also the constant gaze of cameras peering down into your daily routines collecting information about you and/or ready to snap a still-photo of your automobile crossing that intersection a fraction of a second too late or too swiftly. Your cell phone bill will even give you a digital listing of all the calls you made during the previous month.

I’m old enough to remember a time when you would have had to wait a few days to have a credit application approved. However, you can complete a credit application today at cash registers at most major retailers and in a matter of moments, the cashier will advise you of whether your credit request was approved. There was also a time in the not so distant past when an employer requiring a prospective employee to submit a police clearance, would have to wait days depending on how quickly said employee took care of it. Now, the Human Resources Department can submit the identifying information – name, SSN and date of birth – electronically and at the speed of light, the employer will have a life history of the new employee.

Cameras, we have been told, are for our security; the swift approval process for credit applications are allegedly for our convenience; profiles of our buying habits supposedly provide “tailor-made” sales pitches from retailers; and employment screening have been purported to make the workplace safer by weeding out past offenders. For those who may have taken Economics 101 in college, you learned that there is no such thing as a free lunch – one benefit cannot be acquired without the loss of another. Consequently, we must ask, “What did we lose in exchange for our modern-day conveniences and security?”

The trade-off for our “have-it-now” modern society is that there has been a serious erosion of privacy in America, and the invasions into our privacy continue to eat away at our ability to remain anonymous in society. In fact, a mining company in Boca Raton, Florida named Seisint has created "MATRIX," an acronym for Multistate Anti-Terrorist Information Exchange, and according to its creator, it is the largest database on the planet, with more than 20 billion records.

MATRIX was created with the objective of compiling an electronic dossier on every citizen in the nation. With the press of a button, MATRIX will spew out individuals' social security numbers, pictures, birth dates, current addresses, old addresses going back 30 years, phone numbers and the names of others living at their addresses. Credit applications and credit reports, descriptions of properties they own, when they bought them, what they paid to whom, the property taxes paid, their driving histories and violations' records and their driver's license and vehicle registration information all will be shown; as will the names, pictures, phone numbers, birth dates and addresses going back 20 to 30 years of their relatives, associates and neighbors.

Whew! George Orwell warned us of a society with no restraints on government or commercial intrusions into our private lives in his novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four. The only difference between his classic and our society today is that Orwell’s fictional characters lived in a totalitarian society where no one could safely object to the infringements on civil liberties; whereas we live in a democratic society where these types of encroachments on our privacy can be protested. However, the general public seems to be content watching the northern sky for good ole Saint Nick than to be concerned about privacy issues.

As prophetic as Orwell proved to be, even he did not see the next generation in privacy infringements – biometrics. The Washington Post recently reported that the FBI has “greased the skids” for an unprecedented attempt to identify everyone on the planet by physical characteristics, including facial images and scars; fingerprints; iris patterns; voice recognition; and the unique ways that people walk. The FBI is planning to spend $1 billion to create this enormous biometric database, which, if the government realizes its majestic ambition, will allow state and Federal agencies to scan crowds and pick-out criminals based on biometric images.

There is a well founded belief among many Christians that the Bible speaks of a time when every person on the earth would be required to receive a mark (the Mark of the Beast) in their hand or forehead to participate in the end-time financial system (see Revelation 13). However, with the advances in biometrics, the entire body could conceivable be the Mark. I mean, your fingerprint, voiceprint, iris, gait, facial features, and even your signature are all unique and could certainly be catalogued in a database for later retrieval to verify one’s intention to engage in a commercial transaction or to prove you are who you say you are.

Many of us have already unknowingly embraced a system of biometrics, and we participate in it daily when we sign our name in the rectangular box of an electronic signature pad. These digital-based pen tablets record the characteristics of a person's hand-written signature, by recording the pen pressure and duration of the signing process and storing it as an algorithm that is compared against future signatures. When these signature pads first came out, my computer training told me that someone was recording a digital copy of my signature, so I signed them using an “X,” but my explanation was too awkward. Therefore, now I simply sign them with a series of circles. Mike, a good friend of mine who later briefed me on this type of biometric surveillance, refuses to shop in establishments that do not offer a hard copy form for signing credit transactions.

As I contemplate the perpetual, surveillance society that we live in, I wonder how historians of the future will view it: Will they say that the Western world exchanged freedom for safety, and in the end didn’t get either?

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