Commentary Magazine


The Naked Crowd by Jeffrey Rosen

The Naked Crowd: Reclaiming Security and Freedom in an Anxious Age
by Jeffrey Rosen
Random House. 272 pp. $24.95

Shortly after 9/11, Orlando International Airport in Florida tested a new security device that produced detailed, three-dimensional images of travelers and their possessions. Like the supposedly X-ray eyeglasses that used to be advertised in the back of comic books, the machine saw right through clothing. It turned the parade of passengers into a continuous, high-tech striptease.

The nudity, it turned out, was unnecessary. With a few programming tweaks, researchers were able to produce a prototype that, unlike the “naked machine,” projected the images of hidden objects onto sexless cartoon figures. This “blob machine,” writes Jeffrey Rosen, the legal-affairs editor of the New Republic, offered the best of both worlds: the same level of security with none of the attendant invasiveness and humiliation.

Yet—or so Rosen found in his own informal survey—many people, when offered a choice, actually preferred the “naked machine.” Some confessed to mere exhibitionism. Others, he reports, “say they are so afraid of terrorism on airplanes that they would do anything possible to make themselves feel better, even if they understand, on some level, that their reaction is based on emotions rather than evidence.” Since 9/11, he laments, we are increasingly giving up our privacy not to be safer but to feel safer.

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Rosen begins in Britain, where privacy is already, by his account, in a state of advanced decay. Since bombers of the Irish Republican Army struck London’s financial district in the early 90’s, surveillance cameras have sprouted like toadstools on walls and ceilings all over the country. According to one estimate, the typical Briton is photographed more than 300 times a day. Spooked by terrorism and violent crime, however, most people welcome the scrutiny. “Instead of being perceived as an Orwellian intrusion, the cameras in Britain proved to be extremely popular,” Rosen writes. “They were hailed as . . . a friendly eye in the sky, not Big Brother but a kindly and watchful uncle or aunt.”

In terms of actual safety, have Britons benefited from this surveillance? Not much, it would seem. Two years ago, the British government examined the best available studies on the effects of closed-circuit television (CCTV). As the review concluded, the new systems had been “most effective in reducing vehicle crime in car parks” but “had little or no effect on crime in public transport and city-center settings.” Indeed, when Rosen visited a CCTV control room in Hull, in northern England, he found that controllers were spending much of their time leering at attractive women—a predictable result, he notes, “when you put a group of bored, unsupervised men in front of live video screens and allow them to zoom in on whatever happens to catch their eye.”

As for the U.S., a range of invasive new measures has been introduced in recent years, including the use of face-recognition scanners to vet crowds at the Superbowl and the Statue of Liberty, video surveillance in the public spaces of Washington, D.C., and provisions in the Patriot Act that permit the government to execute “sneak and peek” searches of a suspect’s house without notifying him. And then there is the challenge to privacy that most concerns Rosen: “mass dataveillance” that, if implemented, will put the omnivorous data-gathering capabilities of Silicon Valley at the disposal of government snoops.

Under such a scheme, every piece of digital information we generate—from credit-card purchases to EZ-Pass automated toll data to phone records—would be entered in a giant, interconnected database. Applying a sophisticated algorithm, the government might eventually be able to produce a personalized “threat index” for each of us that would determine how aggressively we are screened upon boarding a plane or crossing a border.

To Rosen’s mind, using personal data in this way smacks of the notorious “general warrants” that once allowed agents of King George III to ransack citizens’ homes in search of incriminating information. If put into practice under the Bush administration’s proposed Terrorism Information Awareness program, it would, he argues, not only break the spirit of the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee against unreasonable searches but also vitiate the American ethic of unlimited opportunity by making everyone a prisoner of his past. Worst of all, it would not even protect us from terrorism, because no algorithm can be as effective as face-to-face screening.

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The ongoing assault on privacy can be repulsed, Rosen concludes, only if Congress takes it upon itself to limit the more authoritarian tendencies of the executive branch. Lawmakers could require, for instance, the creation of digital firewalls and encryption schemes to keep private information insulated from the data-trawling of government agencies. To gain access to the information, officials would have to prove to a judge that their inquiry involved a bona-fide investigation into terrorism or violent crime.

Unfortunately, as Rosen sees it, Congress has no real incentive to protect privacy rights because most Americans seem prepared to surrender them unilaterally. Even before 9/11, a constellation of sociological factors—including the Internet, reality television, and the confessional ethic of modern social life—had caused us to ratchet down our expectations of privacy. In the aftermath of 9/11, panic accelerated the trend. Not only do we now readily accede to useless, invasive security rituals, we actually welcome them. People remove their shoes at airports in order “to give themselves the illusion of being protected from future shoe bombers.”

As for “dataveillance,” its roots lie not in the events of 9/11 but in the information-technology revolution of the mid-90’s, which allowed retailers and credit companies to accumulate massive databases on our spending and web-surfing habits. Few of us were bothered when Amazon.com and other sites started leaving their own computer-file “cookies” on our hard drives or making surprisingly appropriate “recommendations” based on our previous purchases. Having embraced the liberating aspects of the Internet, we are psychologically unprepared, Rosen fears, for the possibility that the government might put it to sinister use.

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As an overview of the newest threats to privacy in America, The Naked Crowd is a fine book. It would have been a finer one, though, had Rosen not adopted so fatalistic an attitude toward popular opinion. His subtitle—“Reclaiming Security and Freedom in an Anxious Age”—suggests a call to arms, but what he delivers reads more like an obituary. Americans, he suggests, can never be jolted from their slumber on this issue.

But Rosen’s view already seems dated. Much of The Naked Crowd is based on two lengthy articles that he wrote for the New York Times Magazine in late 2001 and early 2002. At the time, memories of 9/11 were still raw, and it really did seem as if the need to combat terrorism might persuade Americans to compromise their privacy in radically unprecedented ways.

Today’s political climate is much different. Civil libertarians of the Right and Left have mounted a strong campaign against the Patriot Act, and several of the Democratic presidential candidates have called on the Bush administration to scale back the new surveillance measures. As Rosen himself notes, Congress has already rebuffed the Pentagon by denying funding to the Terrorism Information Awareness program (whose name itself was changed from Total Information Awareness out of concern over its ominous overtones). The merits of these counter-efforts are themselves highly debatable, but they are hardly evidence of popular and political quiescence.

A more serious problem with The Naked Crowd is that Rosen never develops a realistic theory of how we might balance security with privacy. As he sees it, we can enjoy generous servings of both goods if the government simply adopts more rational policies. And he is right—so long as he is dealing with easy trade-offs, like the one between the “naked” X-ray machine and its more benign “blob” counterpart. His premise works far less well, however, with tougher cases.

Consider, for instance, racial profiling. If we wish to maintain security while also avoiding mass “dataveillance” and, as Rosen writes, the sight of “frail old ladies frisked like street hoodlums,” screeners at airports and other critical facilities must be allowed to focus their scrutiny on those travelers most likely to perpetrate terrorism: that is, on young Muslim males of Middle Eastern appearance. At one point, Rosen seems to signal approval for this sort of profiling (at least as it is practiced by the Israeli national airline El Al). But elsewhere he reverses himself, condemning racial profiling because it stigmatizes people on the basis of immutable characteristics. By the end of The Naked Crowd, it is clear that few real-world screening methods could satisfy all of Rosen’s various, contradictory conditions.

There is no getting around the fact that a government seeking to preempt terrorism will want to know where we travel, what we buy, whom we talk to, and even how we worship. No technology, screening policy, or regulatory scheme will allow the authorities to do all of this while permitting the same level of privacy and civil liberties we enjoyed before 9/11. Hard choices must be made, and The Naked Crowd does little, ultimately, to help us make them.

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About the Author

Jonathan Kay is managing editor for comment at Canada’s National Post.




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