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As I am half Italian and have lived in Italy, a good cup of espresso or cappuccino is a dietary staple. I have consequently cohabited with a series of coffee machines of increasing complexity. The latest, an Italian brand that is actually made in Italy, grinds the beans, tamps them down, heats the water and pumps it through the ground beans to make a perfectly acceptable cup of espresso, complete with the schiuma foam on top. If you want a capooch, you connect the milk tank, press a button, and the machine does everything for you.

The machine has a clock built in so you can order your coffee in advance and have the machine make you a programmed cup without your having to do anything. When you are sipping a grappa in the evening, the coffee appears as an accompaniment as if by magic.

I had never set up the timer feature, so I went back to the manual and activated the clock a few days ago. I carefully set the time by my watch and returned to the latest Jo Nesbo Norwegian mystery that I was reading. A little later, I went to get an espresso and found that the clock no longer agreed with my watch. It had corrected itself and was precisely on Eastern Daylight Savings time. I wondered what had happened and discovered that some appliances can now communicate using the Internet if there is wi-fi available in the house. Some can send signals to their retailers and manufacturers providing details on how they are used while others are actually interactive with their owners. These signals can be picked up by anyone who has the necessary equipment to do so and they can be stored. Learning this, I had a vision of that good old FBI van parked down the street becoming redundant. A cop can now sit in his air conditioned office and, using his scanners and internet access, he can monitor ten suspects at the same time, tracking their car with GPS or by monitoring Onstar or Nav systems, reading their emails, listening in on their phone calls, and even learning what is on their television or when they had a cup of coffee or washed their dishes. Using credit card records, he knows what they buy and he also can access private records to learn how much money they have in the bank, can see some medical records, and discover what books they take out of the library. Admittedly, a couple of those searches still require a warrant, but most of them can be authorized through a Patriot Act National Security Letter or from a blanket Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court approval.

It is certainly a Brave New World that technology has created, one undoubtedly a bit disconcerting to those of us who still harbor old notions of what constitutes privacy and a personal space, not to mention the Fourth Amendment. The private sector drives the intrusive new technologies for commercial reasons, but the government is quick to exploit the information gathering capabilities that are developed, so quickly that the legal restraints on such activity have a hard time catching up. If they ever will catch up.

(Republished from The American Conservative by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Government Surveillance 
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  1. As a former Homeland Security chief put it, “In America, we tend to think that if something’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.”

    It is a national characteristic that whatever can be done, will be done – something that I have termed the Technological Imperative.

    For instance, once the atomic bomb began to be developed, it was inevitable that it be used – and only a command NOT to drop it could have intervened.

    This has a lot to do with a psychological perspective that has been hardcoded by habit, right from the beginning of European colonization of the continent, that consists of an unshakable belief that there are no limits. Politicians who think otherwise end up being dismissed by the electorate – most famously, in the contest between Carter and Reagan.

    What this means, however, that we are slaves to our means, for we can never deny them. We attempt to lie to ourselves by pretending there really are good ends that justify them – but as Phil points out in this case – the unintended consequences prove otherwise.

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