Belfast Telegraph

Forget the smokescreen, Big Brother is watching

By Jim Dee

Never mind the plight of America's 14m jobless, or the 10m others desperate for full-time work, or even the millions of retirees whose lifesavings and pensions were eviscerated by the 2008 Wall Street meltdown.

According to Mitt Romney's Republican Party posse, November's presidential sweepstakes are all about driving a stake through the heart of 'Obamacare' - the 2010 healthcare overhaul that US conservative leaders and pundits have branded 'the greatest threat to American freedom' ever.

But, even as Republican leaders rail against the alleged government take-over of healthcare, the party has been largely silent about an ever-growing post-9/11 surveillance apparatus that civil libertarians consider a far greater threat.

The ultra-secretive National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) - an agency created in 1960 but whose existence was a secret until 1992 - is one example of an agency gone into hyper-drive.

The NRO is primarily tasked with satellite surveillance. But these days it is one of three agencies administering lie-detector tests to federal employees and civilian contractors working on government contracts. The Defense Department alone conducts 46,000 polygraphs annually.

But, according to several whistleblowers who spoke to the McClatchy News service, while official NRO guidelines require interviewers to keep to security matters, NRO staff are routinely encouraged to probe into extensively private matters such as drug use, depression and sexual habits.

Another example of the security apparatus run amok was highlighted last month by congressman Ed Markey, when he sent letters to nine mobile phone companies asking them to detail how often the FBI and other law enforcement agencies have requested personal information about clients. According to the data collected, mobile phone companies turned over data on at least 1.3m people in 2011 - a stunning figure compared with the 3,000 landline wiretaps granted in 2010.

Obviously, the number of innocent users caught in the trawling would dwarf the villains' volume. That also means the number of people monitored exceeds 1.3m. And then there are the drone wars. Doomsayers and civil libertarians have been raising the alarm about the drones for years.

Their use in domestic surveillance is growing and has the potential to speed to fruition a truly all-seeing Big Brother society faster than people realise.

In February, President Obama signed off on a $63bn (£41bn) aviation bill that included provisions for domestic drone use.

That was music to the ears of companies like AeroVironment, a California company that's developing the 'Nano Hummingbird' - an AA battery-sized spy drone that can land on a window. America's Federal Aviation Administration predicts there'll be 30,000 buzzing around US skies within a decade.

And the good thing is that, because they'll all be unmanned, there's no chance that Obamacare will impinge on their freedom.

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