As more revelations emerge about the suspect in the Boston Craigslist killing, it’s worth underscoring a key element of the case: The video images and Internet trackings that caught Philip Markoff in his alleged web of crime. Surveillance is more widespread than ever in the United States. One example: There are more closed-circuit cameras here (30 million) than children under the age of five (about 21 million).
In the same week that Markoff (dubbed “the Craigslist Killer”) was arrested, California Congresswoman Jane Harman was reported to have been wiretapped by the National Security Agency, which apparently caught her making a you-scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch-your-back deal with a suspected Israeli agent. Harman was shocked she’d been monitored, saying in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, “This abuse of power is outrageous.” Like Markoff, Harman is pleading “not guilty” to the allegations, and like Markoff, she’s battling a public perception that’s already been formed by leaked accounts of her surveillance.
Three years ago, I wrote an article called “The Last Days of Privacy,” about the influx of surveillance and monitoring, and I spoke to a woman who – unbeknownst to the men she dated – ran background checks on all of them. The woman used a service whose taglines are, “If you date . . . investigate” and “Who’s lying next to you?” Clever. Here’s what the woman told me:
The men I’m talking to online are complete strangers. And I have absolutely no knowledge of their character other than what they’re saying in their profiles. I need to feel comfortable knowing that they’re not an ax murderer. The people you meet might be well dressed, but you never know if they have any criminal history. It’s for (my) safety.”
Julissa Brisman, the masseuse found dead in a Boston hotel, might be alive today if she had shared this woman’s habits of surveilling her prospects. These days, people should almost expect they’re being put under a third-party miscroscope. Even the so-called anonymity of the Internet is – because of IP addresses – a mirage. As Craigslists’s CEO told a reporter, “There’s an electronic trail leading to yourself (on the Internet). So don’t use Craigslist for crime unless you want to go to jail.”