Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden wasn’t the first to warn about the dangers of the government spying on American citizens through massive data collection programs. Several groups, including the ACLU, have been banging the drum about the issues of data privacy for many years.
The passage of the Patriot Act in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 gave many Americans cause for concern about surveillance procedures used by the government to spy on potential terrorists — techniques that threaten to infringe upon the privacy of American citizens who have committed no crimes.
In 2004 the ACLU released a humourous video (it was originally a flash feature on their website) based loosely on an internet joke about privacy in the future. The script follows a guy just trying to order a pizza on his way home from work. Unfortunately for him, in Future World, ordering a simple “Double Meat Special” is a daunting, expensive task.
There will be a new $20.00 charge for this, sir. The system tells me that your medical records indicate that you have high blood pressure and extremely high cholesterol. Luckily, we have a new agreement with your national health care provider that allows us to sell you double meat pies as longs as you agree to waive all future claims of liability. You can sign the form when we deliver, but there is a fee for processing. The total is $67.00 even.
The girl at the pizza place convinces him to skip the pizza. She tells him it is in his best interest to go with the sprout sub combo with a side of tofu sticks and proceeds to scold him about his 42″ waist and maxed-out credit cards.
When this was released, most of us thought it was cute and we all chuckled (perhaps a bit nervously) about the premise, never imagining how prescient it was. The ACLU warned at the time,
Government programs and private-sector data collection are destroying our privacy, pushing us towards a 24-hour surveillance society. We are facing a flood of powerful new technologies that expand the potential for centralized monitoring, an executive branch aggressively seeking new powers to spy on citizens, a docile Congress and courts, as well as a cadre of mega-corporations that are willing to become extensions of the surveillance state. We confront the possibility of a dark future where our every move, our every transaction, our every communication is recorded, compiled, and stored away, ready for access by the authorities whenever they want.
In a 2003 report, “Surveillance-Industrial Complex,” the ACLU said, “The U.S. security establishment is rapidly increasing its ability to monitor average Americans by hiring or compelling private-sector corporations to provide billions of customer records.” The report said that “many people still do not understand the danger, do not grasp just how radical an increase in surveillance by both the government and the private sector is becoming possible.”
Nine years ago this video seemed like a conspiracy theory parody. As it turns out, the ACLU saw the writing on the wall and warned the American people about the coming surveillance society that we now see unfolding before our eyes.