Schemes and Devices

The parishioner sitting next to you may be wearing a "wire" under his or her shirt. If you belong to a sanctuary church or synagogue, or even if your congregation is active in social justice issues, the possibility of a federal agent secretly taping everything that is said in a worship service or meeting is very real.

The recent use of paid government spies to infiltrate the churches of the sanctuary movement and secretly tape-record meetings, conversations, and even prayer services raises many questions about this illegal government surveillance of U.S citizens. Who does it and why? How pervasive is it? Who have been targets of it? Who may be next?

Movement organizations, religious social activists, and groups supporting social change usually have a hard time believing that they might be important enough to be targets of surveillance by government or industry. Perhaps that is a result of our general cultural conditioning. As U.S. citizens, we tend to be a rather trusting lot. It is not in our nature or national mythology to be distrusting of government—at least not our own.

People also have a hard time believing that their telephones might be tapped because they are not aware of the new technologies. They picture telephone taps in terms of a little man with earphones sitting in a basement and writing down everything he hears. That's not the way it is done anymore.

In fact, much of the listening in on the telephone probably isn't technically a "tap." If compliant telephone officials hook onto the right pair of wires at the switching station, something akin to an answering service can be set up. The customer never gets billed, however, because the "service" was never requested. And instead of an answering service on the other end, there is a computer that will record whatever is being said and sort and store it under a variety of categories.

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