“We should seriously consider lining our wallets with tinfoil,” I said to my partner the other day, while discussing how the growing use of RFID cards is making it easier for crooks and corporations to remotely hack personal information from wallets. I immediately burst out laughing at my own comment. Here I was proposing that we shield our personal information with the substance most often linked in popular culture to paranoid fears (A Google search of “tinfoil” and “conspiracy theories” nets 201,000 hits).
Forget tinfoil hats; you may need tinfoil pants soon. A company called Renew is under fire for hacking data from over four million accounts of pedestrians in the streets of London, via “smart bins” that look like a cross between recycling receptacles and the Daleks from Dr. Who. These devices have been “secretly harvesting personal data and are now under investigation, in possible violation of European Union law,” according to a recent story in Metro.
The smart bins suck unique electronic signatures from passing smartphones, tracking the location, time and even the direction the owner is heading. At least the City of London had the good sense to order the company to stop the snooping — although Britain is just a dry run. The Renew bins are set for further trials in North America and Asia.
The Metro news item didn’t identify Renew’s clients as public or private. In any case, information siphoning/stifling trends in England and the U.S. are truly living up to that dog-eared adjective “Orwellian.” Last week, two security experts from Government Communication Headquarters oversaw the destruction of hard drives in the Guardian's basement, in an effort to quash the paper’s newsgathering on the Snowden leaks case. Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger wrote a scathing piece online in response, insisting the paper will continue to report on the story outside of London.
“If the people do not trust the government, it does not trust them. If the government does not trust the people, they do not trust it. This merry-go-round is almost a perpetual motion machine,” wrote American philosopher Robert Anton Wilson in his 1996 book, Everything is Under Control: Conspiracies, Cults and Cover-ups.
“Hence, the people grow more hostile and ‘paranoid’ about the government, and the government, noting this, grows more nervous about ‘militias’ or ‘cults’ or ‘hippies’ or ‘extremists’ or some other anti-governmental minority that might live anywhere and might secretly plot anything. It therefore hires more eavesdroppers, installs more wiretaps, and spies on the people with greater vigor. This Strange Loop quickly becomes a Vicious Circle, since governmental paranoia about people and people’s paranoia about government each reinforce the other,” wrote Wilson. (During the FBI’s ’60s/’70s-era COINTEL spy program, the Los Angeles field office reported that a rock concert by The Monkees featured left-wing “subliminal messages.”)
Wilson lived long enough to see the post-9/11 bonanza for the private sector, with the outsourcing of classified intel work to hundreds of security/surveillance firms in the U.S. alone. Across the Anglo-American world, the line between marketing, data-mining, and intelligence gathering has blurred like a watercolour painting left in the rain. There is transparency, but only in one direction — from the business/government elite down to irradiated citizen/consumers, tracked like tagged wildlife to “protect their freedoms” while their particulars are sold to the highest bidder.
The ultimate irony is that one of the signature fears among paranoid schizophrenics is that they are being monitored or controlled by invisible waves of electromagnetic radiation. It’s not like the clinically insane had the jump on the rest of us in anticipating postmillennial surveillance trends. It’s more like our technocrats have made madness the new normal.
So how will this mutual paranoia between the governors and the governed play out? Wilson insisted it would continue “until the system collapses, until the funding runs out, or until, due to Divine Intervention, sanity reappears. In the interlude… both the government and the governed….becomes more frightened of the other.”
Recipe for a culture of institutionalized suspicion: take a heap of shadowy, globe-girdling corporations and throw alphabet agencies like the NSA and GCHQ into the mix. My partner didn’t laugh at my tinfoil comment as I did at. Instead she calmly responded that a local drugstore sells metallic holders for passports. “There’s already a big market out there for RFID-blocking wallets,” she added.
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