As We See It

Phone tracking, privacy rights and surveillance cameras

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Chris Morris

“Disgraceful,” “fascism” and “scumbags.” Those are a few of the words that popped up in online reactions to last week’s news that the National Security Association has been monitoring the phone and Internet records of average Americans.

It’s obviously a public relations nightmare for the federal government, but is it really the Stalinist move it’s been painted to be? A Pew Research Center poll last week found 56 percent of Americans think phone tracking is an accceptable way to investigate terrorism. Forty-five percent said the same of government email monitoring. In an age when there’s a camera on every corner, satellites tracking our every move and a wealth of information available on anyone issued a driver’s license, should we really be surprised that the feds might know who we have on speed-dial or what’s in our Google search history?

That question becomes even murkier when you consider the Las Vegas Strip, arguably the most heavily monitored piece of real estate in the world. The 40-million-plus tourists who come here annually to frolic and forget probably never realize their every move is being watched. And yet, it’s no great secret. When Las Vegas Metro announced recently that 37 new surveillance cameras would monitor action on the Strip, there was no public outcry over being watched in the name of “safety.”

Tod Story, executive director of the ACLU of Southern Nevada, attributes the furor over government monitoring to a sea change in perception—that, until last week anyway, most citizens assumed all this surveillance was for “others.” The NSA scandal makes it abundantly clear that the target now includes “us.” “I think people woke up this morning with a greater understanding of their privacy—or lack thereof,” Story says.

Shayana Kadidal, senior managing attorney for the Guantánamo Global Justice Initiative at the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, adds that it’s dangerous to assume there’s a balance between surveillance and security—or that we’ve gotten safer since the feds increased surveillance. “They’ve issued over 300,000 subpoenas [as opposed to warrants] since 2000 to get this [type of] information. Most Americans would be shocked they don’t need a warrant to get your web search history.”

Story doesn’t see this as a slippery slope: “We’ve already slid. We’ve hit the bottom.”

From down here, it’s harder to see those Strip security cameras and assume they’re protecting “us” from “them.” Or, as Kadidal puts it, “Are you really more scared of a Boston bombing every couple of years or a government that has this level of power to essentially peer into the most private activity of citizens?”

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Ken Miller is Las Vegas Magazine's managing editor, having previously served as associate editor at Las Vegas Weekly, assistant features ...

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