Presentation Notes: The Systematic Federal Surveillance of Ordinary Americans
Charlotte Twight’s article, “Watching You” in The Independent Review offers a deeply critical review of federal policies monitoring and collecting data on everyday people. Full title: “Watching You: The Systematic Surveillance of Ordinary Americans.”
In this 1999 journal article, Dr. Twight, an economist at Boise State University, argues:
With extensive federal data collection creating ever greater incentives to behave as government wishes us to behave, the societal result is metastasizing government control. Indeed, Schwartz views the computer’s ability to digitize personal information as offering “the state and society a powerful way to control the behavior of individuals”… [C]entral government data-collection programs … share one defining characteristic: they compel production, retention, and dissemination of personal information about every American citizen.
The expanding range of federal programs that provide services connect to databases that collect and store supporting information. Each American’s Social Security number links to individual records in federal labor databases, medical databases, educational databases, financial databases and others.
Gary McGath in The Freeman, explains that we can find “The Dawn of the Surveillance State” in World War I:
…large-scale spying on Americans got its real start in 1917, when the United States entered World War I. President Wilson claimed … Germany had “filled our unsuspecting communities with vicious spies and conspirators and sought to corrupt the opinion of our people in their own behalf.”
…Congress gave teeth to his warning with the Espionage Act, which criminalized opposition to the war. In 1918, the Sedition Act made prohibitions on dissent even broader.
The Bureau of Investigation (later called the FBI)…creating the American Protective League (APL)… The APL … was nominally private, …1,200 branches put local public schools under surveillance,APL members detained over 40,000 people, opened mail, and raided factories, union halls, and private homes.
McGath cites recent research by Lon Strauss at the University of Kansas:
[H]istorian Lon Strauss has written, we can “see the foundation that influenced subsequent decisions…. There’s a direct connection with the type of surveillance state that produced the NSA; that foundation was created in the First World War.”
Conservative scholar Robert Nisbet in his book The Present Age also focuses on entry into World War I as a turning point in U.S. history. Notes Nisbet in his chapter, The Prevalance of War:
Of all faces of the present age in America, the military face would almost certainly prove the most astounding to any Framers of the Constitution, any Founders of the Republic who came back to inspect their creation on the occasion of the bicentennial.
[T]he Seventy-Five Years War that has gone on, rarely punctuated, since 1914 … the American Constitution was designed for a people more interested in governing itself than in helping to govern the rest of the world.
See also Charlotte Twight’s 2002 book Dependent on D.C., reviewed here for The Independent Review.