What if wearing masks makes us more free?

Rather than erode our liberties, wearing a mask might help shield citizens from state surveillance.

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A Chicago Police Department surveillance camera mounted on a light pole in 2005.

A Chicago Police Department surveillance camera mounted on a light pole in 2005. Ten years ago, the ACLU called the system “a pervasive and unregulated threat to our privacy.”

Associated Press

The funny thing is ...

Not “ha-ha” funny, but sad and ironic funny, which is about the only funny we get nowadays.

Anyway, as I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted, by myself, the funny thing is, if Americans actually cared about their freedom, they wouldn’t manifest that care by throwing these you-can’t-make-me, blue-in-the-face toddler fits over convenience store policies requiring masks.

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Rather than refuse to wear masks, as the extra contagious Delta variant rips across the country, they wouldinsiston wearing masks in public, not merely to ward off infection, but to escape the net of cyber surveillance tightening around the public every day. They would wear masks now, and keep on wearing them should COVID-19 ever recede, an increasingly remote possibility approaching “when pigs fly.”

Masks not only screen out viruses, but also add a fig leaf of anonymity that might be helpful soon. This week, the Illinois State Police, joined by the city and state transportation departments, announced they will install cameras to read the license plates of every car on the highways, in the face of a surge of expressway shootings. The idea is: it’s enough of a hassle to drive the Dan Ryan from Point A to Point B without also having to worry about another motorist shooting you and getting away scot-free.

Will it help? More cameras doesn’t seem to be translating into more safety, just less privacy. Add highway license plate cameras to the police, business and municipality security cameras already in operation, plus private residence doorbell cameras. Sooner or later those cameras will all be hooked up to a central location. Mix in face-recognition technology, and we’re nearing, if not already at, the point where you can’t scratch your ear in public without risk of the moment ending up on a flatscreen monitor in some basement control room with your name flashing underneath. Someday, you’ll rub your lower back on the ‘L’ platform and your Twitter feed will start recommending Bengay.

Law enforcement shouts the benefits of these systems, while their drawbacks are only whispered. The title of an ACLU report 10 years ago on Chicago’s “extensive and integrated” surveillance cameras, the most widespread in the nation, was “A Pervasive and Unregulated Threat to Our Privacy.” All those cameras — the city won’t say how many — don’t seem to stem these ever more routine shootings.

Here’s some cold comfort: The cameras may be superfluous. George Orwell missed the boat when he wrote “1984.” To a large degree, we aren’t going to be oppressed by Big Brother watching us at all time, destroying our privacy. He doesn’t have to; we’ll surrender our privacy ourselves, voluntarily, eagerly, placing our lives online and insisting that our social network fantasy worlds become continual companions to whatever diminished real world existences we manage to retain. (Readers in 2070, should there be any, which there won’t, might wryly smile at how I consider our fleeting, unrecorded and therefore meaningless thrashing around in the unfiltered flesh world as “real,” when of course reality is what appears, curated, on Facebook.)

But if we’ve learned anything — and we might not have, but let’s pretend — from the past five years, it’s Things Change, and you can’t assume the benign intentions of the government. The Chinese use their massive surveillance systems to crush the liberties of their people, stifle dissent and harry minority groups, also in the name of enhanced security. Think that can’t happen here? It already has, if you go back to the Chicago police Red Squad, and the FBI infiltrating and undermining protest groups.

The sad truth is, the government doesn’t need to see your face to know where you are. The 2013 Snowden hack of National Security Agency material shows the government can and sometimes does illegally poke its nose into your phone and laptop. So even if patriots decided to mask up so that Uncle Sam doesn’t know who’s buying that gallon of pre-mixed margaritas at Costco, it’s a false sense of security, because the Man will be reading the credit card transaction and the email blast calling friends over for Jimmy Buffett Night. Our faces won’t give us away because our phones already will have done so.

All done, supposedly, to make us safer, and used only for legitimate law enforcement purposes. Until it isn’t.


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