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Are We Being Watched?



You can be certain of that, but when did it all begin? It would seem that mass surveillance in our country goes back as far as World War I when it was common for all international communications, those from, to, or any that passed through the United States (US) were read and censored when it was thought necessary to gain information and, of course, for security reasons.

However, censorship in the U. S. dates as far back as the early 1600s when Thomas Morton, an Englishman living in the colonies took over a “Host ship” of a town that he renamed “Merrymount.” While there he supposedly initiated Bacchanalian events, erected a May-pole and continued to compose various rhymes, verses and his three-volume “New England Canaan” publication denouncing the Puritan government in the colonies and their treatment of the Natives. The result was that the governor of Plymouth sent a military expedition to Merrymount to arrest Morton and break up his “high-living.”

In another case in the early 1700s a New York newspaper printer, John Zenger, who routinely published articles that were critical of the city’s Governor, William Cosby, was jailed, accused of seditious libel, which according to the “The Free Dictionary” is written or spoken words, pictures, signs, or other forms of communication that tend to defame, discredit, criticize, impugn, embarrass, challenge, or question the government, its policies, or its officials; speech that advocates the overthrow of the government by force or violence or that incites people to change the government by unlawful means. He eventually received a not guilty verdict and his case was instrumental in freedom of the press being adopted into the US Constitution.

Mass surveillance continued to grow beyond World War I and was even more evident during World War II as by then the Federal Law-enforcement and intelligence agencies like the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the National Security Agency (NSA) had been established and their intelligence gathering targeted individuals and organizations considered to be subversive activists, anti-war protesters or political dissenters. Under Project SHAMROCK, which began in 1945, all telegraphic communication coming into or going out of the U. S. was, without any court authorization or warrants, microfilmed and passed on to each of these agencies in accordance with how they were related to that agency’s mission. This effort was fully supported by Western Union, Radio Corporation of America (RCA) and International Telegraph and Telephone (ITT).

During the 1950s, a sister program to SHAMROCK, Project MINARET was put into play and served as a domestic espionage program that was controlled by the NSA, and they began surveilling  US citizens who had been identified in some of the intercepted communications. There was also a resurgence of spying efforts during this period by way of the “New Shamrock” which was responsible for tapping the links of more than 60 foreign embassies. And, beginning in the 1960s and running well into the 1970s, again without judicial oversight or warrants, the number of names of US citizens added to the NSA’s “watch list,” continued to grow and soon included journalists, civil rights leaders and even some senators.   

While these activities seemed to continue on without the concern of most of the country’s leadership, by the 1970s it did not escape the interest of the press which began publishing articles from “those in a position to know” that detailed things like the Army’s spying on US citizens, covert activities involving attempts to subvert foreign governments and to assassinate foreign leaders, and our own intelligence agencies’ efforts to learn about the political activities of U.S. citizens. These claims led to a series of investigations into intelligence abuses during the mid-1970s, supposedly carried out by the CIA, FBI, NSA and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). The reports resulting from these investigations led to the establishment of a permanent US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the creation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in 1978. If the term “FISA court” does not ring a bell with you then you have not been paying attention to recent reports of their having issued warrants that permitted  surveillance measures based upon claims outlined in a “dossier.”

Much of this strong reaction to the investigative findings in the 1970s eased quite a bit after the September 11 attacks in 2001 and both international and domestic surveillance escalated to a level far beyond that once considered acceptable under the Bill of Rights and our Constitution. Currently for mass surveillance to continue authority must come from Presidential executive orders such as the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (USA PATRIOT) Act of 2001 and must be reissued annually. Needless to say, the press is again reporting information about US intelligence techniques now in use as was evidenced by documents supplied by Edward Snowden. If tensions should ease again in the near future there will, no doubt, be stronger attempts to rein in “the powers that be” to control what is considered to be out and out “spying.”

However, mass surveillance through the capture of correspondence is not the only thing out there that may be threatening our privacy as most businesses today use camera systems to monitor the comings and goings of customers and yes, their employees. Almost all major cities and many smaller ones now monitor activities of its residents through the use of cameras on the street corners even if it is for no other reason than traffic control. For those of you who enjoy reading mystery novels or watching crime dramas on TV, you know that when the police are looking for a suspect they usually head straight to those cameras on the street corners and in businesses around the “crime scene” to see what occurred and if the perpetrator can be spotted.

It is a fact that today more and more homeowners are installing security systems to protect their families, homes and possessions. Many of these systems include covert surveillance cameras placed throughout the house to provide revolutionary ways of capturing events that may occur while owners are not at home. We, as REALTORS® must also be aware that many of these devices (“Nanny cams”) could be hidden in outlets, books, clocks, plants, smoke detectors, etc. and may also include audio recording devices. Hopefully, when listing a home for sale, the owners will advise us as to this issue and the location of each device, but that may not always happen. Now, when showing homes to prospective buyers, it is important to advise them to keep their comments to a minimum while inside the home as it is always possible they are being recorded.  It is especially important that we advise them to save any discussions about the offers they have in mind or what they are willing to pay until they are outside and well away from the house. Yes, we are being watched everywhere! 

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