Signs of the Times: Surveillance Watching the US?

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WASHINGTON – Sept. 11 turned much of the West into a high surveillance society. And hi-tech devices could soon enable the government to track our lives more than we’d like.

Surveillance may not be at the level that author George Orwell wrote about in 1984, where “big brother” could see and control all. But experts say the tools are being forged to create such a world.

“We’re talking Little Brother now, and we're talking Big Brother down the road,” said Michael Ostrolenk, national director of the Liberty Coalition.

Scientific ID

Attempts to track terrorists and illegal immigrants have led to massive new efforts to identify people, using their body’s unique fingerprints, facial characteristics and iris patterns. A program called Real ID would marry this “biometric” information with a person’s driver’s license, making it easier to track.

“It would require all states to conform to national standards for your driver's license," Ostrolenk explained. "So it basically creates a national identity card.”

Visit the CBN Special Page: Sign of the Times - How Will it All End?

Amie Stepanovich of the Electronic Privacy Information Center told CBN News that many states are saying “no way.”

“Twenty-four states have enacted laws that say that Real ID will not be implemented in their state,” she explained.

Government Decides Who Can Work

The E-Verify system has also been proposed to boot illegal immigrants out of the American workplace. But both Ostrolenk and Stepanovich object to its overreach.

"E-Verify is kind of the government inserting itself between an employer and an employee," Stepanovich said. "The employer must collect certain types of information and send it over to the government."

The government will check verification databases and let the employer know if they can hire or keep the worker.

"But you should never have to seek permission from the federal government to be employed," Ostrolenk said. "Or for an employer to hire a new person."

And Stepanovich says the databases are filled with errors.

"So people are being rejected for employment or they lose the employment they already have based on information in the system that may or may not be true,” she added.

Too Close for Comfort

Then there are the airport security systems that have millions of American flyers coping with up close and personal body scans and searches.

"There is a huge embarrassment factor," Stepanovich said. "These machines have been shown to show cellulite. They show like every single piece of the human body."

Such programs and measures can affect every citizen.

"Whether it's war on terror or illegal immigrants, a lot of these programs are pushed to fight the boogeyman, whatever the boogeyman happens to be, but they ensnarl all American citizens in it,” Ostrolenk claimed.

Tiny radio frequency identification devices, or RFIDs, are now being attached to millions of objects – even livestock and pets – so information can be tracked in an instant.

A Future of Body Chipping?

Some government programs and cities are making this RFID “chipping” mandatory. And it’s now becoming more acceptable to use biometrics and RFIDs on people.

Supporters say this chipping could help track lost or kidnapped children, or Alzheimer's patients who wander off. But they can also be used to control a person’s actions.

One Florida school is requiring students to have their biometrics checked before they get food from the cafeteria. And a Miami university hospital has embedded microchips to track whether medical workers are washing their hands.

This chipping may seem strange now, but Ostrolenk suggested it'll become commonplace as it spreads.

“So the next generation arises and says, 'Well, that's kind of normal. Of course you need a device to keep track of you to make sure you don't get kidnapped or lost or into trouble,’” he said.

Changes in Retail

Scientists are even suggesting than rather than cash or credit cards that can be lost or stolen, we might be better off doing all our financial transactions through implanted chips safeunder the skin.

Ostrolenk also pointed out that medical records will be added to these identification and tracking systems.

This has some people questioning what information will be used for and against them.

With super-computers able to comb through and assemble all this data on every citizen, Ostrolenk says, "A dossier on you is going to grow and grow and grow."

“Why not gun records, too?" Ostrolenk continued. "Because an argument could be made, ‘Well, police need to know who has guns.’”

Soon the drones killing terrorists in Pakistan will be patrolling America's borders and inner cities, and they'll have access to databases about every citizen.

"It is quite nerve-wracking to consider these unmanned drones flying above us with surveillance cameras keeping track of us," Ostrolenk added.

Americans want to fight terror and crime, and have a secure nation. But some skeptics wonder if more science will mean more trouble.

"When that's done at the cost of privacy for every single person going about their everyday lives," Stepanovich said, "It's not really consistent with our constitutional protections and principles."

--Originally aired August 23, 2011.

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Paul  Strand

Paul Strand

CBN News Washington Sr. Correspondent

As senior correspondent in CBN's Washington, D.C., bureau, Paul Strand has covered a variety of political and social issues, with an emphasis on defense, justice, and Congress.  Follow Paul on Twitter @PaulStrandCBN and "like" him at Facebook.com/PaulStrandCBN.