You've rented a car to drive from Connecticut to Virginia. You head south on I-95, but at times, your speed creeps up to 80 mph like many of the drivers around you. Finally, you stop to buy gas but your credit card is rejected at the pump. The reason? The company who rented you the car has been monitoring your driving in real time. Not only that, they've fined you three times, at $150 per violation, for speeding, and already deducted it from your credit card. Sound impossible? It's not, and Robert O'Harrow's NO PLACE TO HIDE describes how car rental companies can do it, and have already done it.
Perhaps you have never heard of Acxiom, Seisint, ChoicePoint, HNC Software, TransCore, Searchspace, and Verint? Well, that's just the way those companies want it. And they are just some of the companies who know all about you - your name, address, and social security number, every place you've ever lived, your credit histories, who your friends are, what you say and do on the Internet, where you travel, even your faces, fingerprints, and DNA. In the interest of catching terrorists and preventing terrorism, federal and local law enforcement agencies have increasingly turned to these companies for help - all conveniently situated outside the privacy laws and Patriot Act restrictions and free to collect virtually any information they can lay their hands on. The result is a boom in the "total information awareness" business that is creating a world of commercial "big brothers." It is a world about which most Americans are blissfully, and foolishly, unaware.
Faster machines, bigger databases, more networking, and microminiaturization to the level of flea-sized RFID chips and "smart dust" will only make these systems more and more pervasive. But as O'Harrow repeatedly demonstrates, mistakes get made and innocent people's lives are ruined without recourse. One of the strengths of NO PLACE TO HIDE is the author's retelling of nightmarish occurrences that victimized innocent American citizens, stories that resound with the eerie randomness and facelessness of Kafka's THE TRIAL. The author points out as well that system missions creep from anti-terrorism to criminal behavior to ... what? Furthermore, he demonstrates that these systems are so uncontrolled an open-ended in their use, law enforcement personnel can use them for any reason whatsoever, even for personal reasons or for personal gain. As O'Harrow quotes one sheriff's deputy from Michigan, "There isn't anybody, anywhere in law enforcement, that doesn't check people out. If they say they don't I'd stake you a hundred that they're lying."
NO PLACE TO HIDE is not without shortcomings that render it a 4-star rating rather than 5 stars. To begin with, O'Harrow's writing style is a bit tedious, employing more or less the same dramatic and illustrative devices in each chapter. As a result, the book feels longer and more repetitive than it really is. Second, by striving mightily to stay even-handed, the author creates an odd distance to subject matter that should be raising his hackles and creating a greater sense of outrage or dread. Third, the book is so full of little-known company names, products and services, and governmental agencies, they tend to blend into a sort of surveillance industry soup. A few well-conceived charts or diagrams would have been invaluable in sorting out the players. Finally, the book ends without so much as a word on what should be done to bring the post-9/11, Patriot Act-inspired information and surveillance crusade back under some semblance of citizen control.
Nevertheless, it's fair to say that O'Harrow's book is indeed a harrowing look into a 1984-ish, MINORITY REPORT future. Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, you're likely to find much to disturb you in this eye-opening book. NO PLACE TO HIDE outlines the framework for an America few of us would knowingly choose, evidence (if any more was needed) that Osama bin Laden's 9/11 plan succeeded far beyond anything he could possibly have dreamed. After all, could he ever have imagined being able to turn us so aggressively against ourselves? Or, to quote Ben Franklin in what is probably the best sentence in the book, "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserves neither liberty nor safety." When are we finally going to wake up from our 9/11 stupor and heed Mr. Franklin? Perhaps NO PLACE TO HIDE is the alarm we need.