The new Stasi: Your boss and your neighbors join the surveillance state

The state wasn't monitoring the Catalanos, an ex- employer was and the Brits want your neighbors watching too ... here comes the New Stasi

On Thursday I wrote about the curious story of Michele Catalano and her husband who live on Long Island and were unexpectedly visited by the police. The team of six policemen asked to search the Catalano's house and asked pointed questions such as "Do you have any bombs?" (to which terrorists always answer "yes"), "Do you own a pressure cooker?", and "Have you ever looked up how to make a pressure cooker bomb?" 

It turned out that Catalano and her husband had separately searched online for "pressure cooker" and "backpack" respectively and their 20-year old son had read an article on CNN's web site about how bomb-making instructions could be found online.

But how exactly the Catalanos were targeted for investigation  was, as of writing, a mystery. I commented in my posting that this kind of thing "makes it hard to believe the contention that domestic surveillance isn't, as the government keeps contending, both widespread and in-depth."

Well, it turns out that it wasn't any governmental organization watching what the family was searching for but rather the husband's ex-employer. It seems that after being let go Mr. Catalano's ex-employer had examined a company-owned computer that Catalano had had access to, and upon finding searches for the terms in question, the ex-employer tipped off the police.

The fact that an employer would go looking for such circumstantial evidence and then go and tip-off the cops is hard to believe but that the cops would take such a tip-off seriously is even more ridiculous. This implies that pretty  much any "tip-off" could get anyone investigated by the police which is a depressing state of affairs.

Over on Gawker, blogger Adrian Chen wrote a smug, snarky piece that included a holier-than-thou comment:

Now bloggers are dressing up their otherwise unremarkable personal stories with creepy Snowdenesque flourishes, and credulous journalists are amplifying it because it seems of apiece with everything else going on.

But here's the important thing that Chen misses: When an employer starts to monitor the browsing of an employee, ex -or otherwise, and starts tipping off the police who then credulously act upon the allegation, we've moved into a brave new world where employers become an extension of the state intelligence apparatus. 

Moreover, there's still weirdness about the whole explanation of who did what and why: 

An FBI spokeswoman, Kelly Langmesser, told Gawker that the visit was a local police matter conducted by the Nassau and Suffolk County Police Departments. But Detective Vincent Garcia, a spokesman for the Nassau County Police Department told me that his department had nothing to do with it.

"I read it, and I'm like, OK, this is kind of interesting. Is it even possible to do that?" Garcia said. "Probably, but I don't think my department has the ability to do that."

So now in this farce we also apparently have the Keystone Cops appearing in the role of law enforcement. 

Sure, many bloggers, myself included, didn't find the idea that this search was somehow tied up with government surveillance programs implausible but given that an employer can "drop a dime" on a staff member and various government agencies will swing into action doesn't make our concern that surveillance has got way out of control any less valid.

And surveillence will probably get even more commonplace if the authorities have anything to do with it. For example, in the UK in May, Dame Stella Rimington who was Director General of MI5 from 1992 to 1996 spoke out on a proposal by the British Conservative party "to give the police and spy agencies the power to monitor every phone call, email and web visit."

Dame Stella, apparently unaware of the illogic of granting state agencies sweeping surveillance power and then contending that MI5 could not be expected to spot every danger, said that "the public had a duty to act as the 'eyes and ears' of the security services in combating terrorists."

Dame Stella went further and even more illogically suggested that "further attacks were likely unless Britain wanted a 'Stasi' state where everyone was monitored" which is just what she was arguing for in the first place!

This desire to surveil anything and everything isn't restricted to the UK as we well know, it's just that, for a change, on this one the Brits have come out of the security closet first. It's a depressing thought that at this rate we're going to become a society that isn't only watched by its government and the online services we use but also by our employers and, eventually, our neighbors.

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