The Herald Bulletin

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Columns

July 16, 2013

Jim Bailey: Big Brother is watching, but what does he see?

It became the subject of a TV series, “Person of Interest.” Using ubiquitous surveillance cameras, the government authorized the creation of a supercomputer that could predict the likelihood of terrorist acts. But the computer (fictitious, of course – or is it?) turned out to be able to predict ordinary crimes as well. The government wasn’t interested, so its inventor set out on his own to make use of that feature.

George Orwell’s Big Brother in the novel “1984” spied on every aspect of life in a future world. Now, with a plethora of investigations of government snooping in progress, people are wondering if Big Brother has finally arrived on the scene.

The probes center mainly on phone records, e-mails and such in an ostensible attempt to ferret out potential terrorists before they can do damage to the homeland. Critics, on the other hand, wonder if the overreach isn’t trampling on the right to privacy, which isn’t mentioned in the Constitution but has been alluded to in quite a few judicial fiats.

Under investigation is a computer bank that supposedly contains information on all calls made in the Verizon wireless system. It has spawned talk of government listening in on everyone’s private conversations. Well, not exactly. The information collected includes calls made, their destinations and duration, and if further action is necessary to find out the content of anything suspicious.

My wireless phone is not Verizon. But if similar databases covered other wireless carriers and land phones as well, I’m still wondering what all the fuss is about.

First of all, my phone records likely would never trigger an investigation. I don’t think I, or my wife either, have made a single international call either by land or by air. Our wireless phone is used mostly for long distance calling, primarily to our kids, or while traveling or for emergencies. The government could probably store our wireless phone records in a thimble. And the most suspicious activity on our land phone would be international calls from telemarketers with thick accents (is the government at all interested in enforcing the do-not-call lists?).

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