Recently, as protesters gathered outside the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP) summit in Montebello, Quebec, to confront US President George W. Bush, Mexican President Felipe CalderÃ³n and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the Associated Press reported this surreal detail: “Leaders were not able to see the protesters in person, but they could watch the protesters on TV monitors inside the hotel … Cameramen hired to ensure that demonstrators would be able to pass along their messages to the three leaders sat idly in a tent full of audio and video equipment … A sign on the outside of the tent said, ‘Our cameras are here today providing your right to be seen and heard. Please let us help you get your message out. Thank You.’”
Yes, it’s true: Like contestants on a reality TV show, protesters at the SPP were invited to vent into video cameras, their rants to be beamed to protest-trons inside the summit enclave. It was security state as infotainment — Big Brother meets, well, Big Brother.
The spokesperson for Prime Minister Harper explained that although protesters were herded into empty fields, the video-link meant that their right to political speech was protected. “Under the law, they need to be seen and heard, and they will be.”
It is an argument with sweeping implications. If videotaping activists meets the legal requirement that dissenting citizens have the right to be seen and heard, what else might fit the bill?
How about all the other security cameras that patrolled the summit — the ones filming demonstrators as they got on and off buses and peacefully walked down the street? What about the cellphone calls that were intercepted, the meetings that were infiltrated, the e-mails that were read? According to the new rules set out in
Elections are a crude tool for taking the public temperature — these methods allow constant, exact monitoring of our beliefs. Think of surveillance as the new participatory democracy; of wiretapping as the political equivalent of Total Request Live.
But perhaps they had it backward: The CEOs had only an hour and fifteen minutes of face time with the leaders. The activists were being “seen and heard” around the clock. So perhaps instead of shouting about police state tactics, they should have said, “Thank you for listening.” (And reading, and watching, and photographing, and data-mining.)
The model dates back to September 11, when the
Almost six years later, the business leaders at
From experience we know what this means: continent-wide no-fly lists, searchable and integrated databases, as well as the $2.5 billion contract to Boeing to build a “virtual fence” on the northern and southern borders of the United States, equipped with unmanned drones.
In short, under the SPP vision of the continent, “thick” borders will soon be replaced with a nearly invisible web of continental surveillance — almost all of it run for profit. Two members of the SPP advisory group — Lockheed Martin and General Electric — have already received multibillion-dollar contracts from the
In the run-up to the SPP summit, a spate of surveillance scandals helped paint a fuller picture. First, Congress not only failed to curtail the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretapping but opened the door to snooping into bank records, phone call patterns and even physical searches — all without any onus to prove the subject is a threat.
Next, the Boston Globe reported on plans to link thousands of CCTV cameras on streets, subways, apartment buildings and businesses into networks capable of tracking suspects in real time. And on August 15, confirmation came that the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency — the arm of the US military that runs spy planes and satellites over enemy territory — would be fully integrated into the infrastructure of domestic intelligence gathering and local policing, becoming what the agency calls the “eyes” to the NSA’s “ears.”
Add a few more high-tech tools — biometric IDs, facial-recognition software, networked databases of “suspects,” GPS bundled into ever more electronic devices — and you have something like the world of total surveillance most recently portrayed in The Bourne Ultimatum.
Which brings us back to the Security and Prosperity Partnership. Who needs clumsy old border checks when the authorities are making sure we are seen and heard at all times — in high definition, online and off-, on land and from the sky? Security is the new prosperity. Surveillance is the new democracy.
This column was first published in The Nation (www.thenation.com).
Naomi Klein is the author of “No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies” and “Fences and Windows: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the Globalization Debate.” You can read more at NaomiKlein.org.