Watch the watchers
PORTLAND, ORE. — Almost every week, I see new evidence that our country is gradually turning into a "global village." Gone are the days when people could move to a big city and become unidentified bystanders on crowded sidewalks. For better or worse, we are losing opportunities to exist anonymously.
Once again, history comes full circle. In earlier times, residents of small towns maintained networks of community surveillance to keep track of outsiders, or neighbors who aroused suspicion. Advanced technology is now putting more and more of us under the same pervasive scrutiny whenever we step out the front door.
Juanita Lozano knows what I mean. Last month she was sentenced to a year in jail for mailing secret Republican debate material to the Al Gore campaign and then lying about it to a grand jury. Crucial evidence was provided by a post office security camera that caught her on tape as she mailed the package in question.
It's hard to walk around the block these days without having your face recorded and stored in some electronic archive. There are videocams in grocery stores, schools, banks, airports, and numerous other venues. If this situation was an episode of "Star Trek," Captain Kirk would probably conclude that our planet had been colonized by Alan Funt and the staff of "Candid Camera." A news story in early July reported that Tampa, Fla., has become the first American city to scan public streets, looking for people with outstanding arrest warrants.
Anyone who manages to avoid detection by earthbound lenses still has to contend with more sophisticated devices such as the IKONOS satellite lurking 400 miles overhead. I was impressed by its high-resolution photos of the EP-3 Navy airplane on Hainan Island, and it was also used recently to uncover other vital information: the secret African location of "Survivor III." CBS had been trying to keep the site in Kenya under wraps in order to maximize viewer interest before the show's airing in October. I dread the day when IKONOS starts sending pictures of my backyard to the city weed-control bureau.
Sometimes, people hiding secrets get ambushed by unexpected adversaries. Private detectives hired by suspicious Little League coaches were unable to learn the true age of pitching sensation Danny Almonte, but Sports Illustrated cracked the case faster than you can say "Dick Tracy." Who would have guessed the scribes were also super sleuths? If the Bush administration acted quickly to form a public-private partnership and link the investigative powers of Sports Illustrated with the technical resources of the CIA, I think Osama bin Laden would be under arrest in time to watch the World Series from his jail cell.
While it's true that a lot of privacy-busting is aimed at criminals, many Americans are alarmed by our society's increasing powers of observation. What we need to do is make sure we're keeping a watchful eye on the watchers at all times. And that shouldn't be too hard, since we've gotten so good at keeping our eyes on just about everything else.