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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 28, 2010

Big Brother has help in watching all of us

By Jay Fidell

School officials in Pennsylvania gave laptops to 1,800 students, then used them to remotely spy on the students at home. This resulted in a class action alleging that the officials violated the Fourth Amendment, among other things.

The "laptopgate" officials all undoubtedly swore to uphold the Constitution, then roundly violated it. What they did is outrageous, but we should also be concerned about the technology that is enabling these attacks on our privacy.


The Information Age has punched holes in that privacy. Did you notice how many street cameras were in play while we waited for the elusive tsunami last month? In the end, the news was not so much the wave as the technology.

Author Shane Harris recently wrote a book called "The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State." He says spying on our own citizens has become increasingly easy, legal and central in our national security strategy.

Remember the movie "Sliver," a 1993 Sharon Stone and Alex Baldwin movie about a criminal-type landlord who wires a whole building and does video eavesdropping on his tenants. That would be easier now, with wireless.

And remember "Lives of Others," a 2006 film dealing with the surveillance of a writer's apartment by the Stasi, the East German Secret Police, in the dark years before the Berlin Wall came down. Are we now returning to the future?


Terrorism has accelerated surveillance. If there weren't enough cameras on the streets before 9/11, there are a lot more today. Look at London, New York and so many other cities around the world. Business is booming for suppliers.

Today's cameras are high resolution. They shoot 360 degrees in color, low light and infrared. They are digital, wireless, durable and tamper-proof. They are programmable with remote pan-tilt-zoom. They lurk in opaque domes, along with speakers and microphones. They have software for data retrieval, and for tracking and facial recognition. James Bond would be impressed.

You could walk across a city of these and be followed block by block, handed off from camera to camera, always under surveillance. It's all in the software, and the software is more sophisticated and intrusive every time you look.

Hawai'i is no stranger to this. We have cameras for traffic, surf and security in Chinatown (they helped deal with the gangland violence last year). The police like them, citizens like them, and some neighborhood boards demand them.


Better surveillance cameras are being developed every day. Fear of terrorism has given government the most powerful electronics ever devised to intrude into our lives. Also troubling is that they are easily available to the public.

The Internet has revolutionized the security industry, which is expanding by leaps and bounds. These cameras are for sale at big box stores. Anyone can buy them, and given their easy availability and cost, there is no reason not to. Many Web sites candidly offer them for "spying," and that's what they do.

The resulting coverage goes beyond the streets, and also beyond sensitive facilities like government offices, bases, schools, hospitals and airports. New and more unobtrusive cameras are being installed anywhere and everywhere.

You can buy "pinhole" cameras on the Net Google "surveillance equipment." But so can the bad guys, and there's been a rash of prosecutions against jerks who pushed them through walls to spy on people. Should sales be regulated?


George Orwell's Big Brother has come of age since 1984, and with current high tech equipment he's been watching us as never before. What's ironic is that we are finding that Big Brother is not only government these days, he's all of us.

How does being watched affect the quality of our lives? You can argue that only terrorists and criminals would protest, but the reality is that none of us has the same privacy we had before. This does not bode well for a free society.

The Patriot Act has again been renewed. Last month, Judge Alex Kozinski of the Ninth Circuit wrote a blistering dissent against the court's refusal to rehear U.S. v. Lemus, a warrantless residential search and seizure case. He lamented that "the Fourth Amendment is gone welcome to the fish bowl."

Technology changes our world, and the effects are not always desirable. Could school officials in Hawai'i make the same mistake as those in Pennsylvania? Should we be watching our children by remote control? Or should we focus instead on teaching them about the importance of the Fourth Amendment?

After all, one day they could be school officials too.