"Gotcha" politics has long been part of the no-holds-barred theater of all major campaigns, but most dramatic at the presidential level. Operatives searching for that one embarrassing moment or fabricated truth doggedly chase "gotchas" as far back in time as candidates' kindergarten essays.
Twenty years ago, long before the barrage of paparazzi and lens-in-your face journalism, Gary Hart virtually dared the press to prove he was having an illicit affair. They did exactly that. The National Enquirer featured a now infamous cover photo with a smiling, 29-year-old Donna Rice sitting in her mini-skirt on 50-year-old Hart's bare knee on the luxury yacht Monkey Business. From that point, Hart's campaign was terminal -- and media interest in the personal lives of American political leaders has soared.
In 2008, I anticipate the most explosive "gotcha" might well come from an entirely different source than the now-familiar accusations of cheating and drug use, or the dispiriting charges and counter-charges of episodes such as Swiftboat. This new source is digital: the expanding archives of surveillance videos and personal web data that we all have been quietly recording, typing and accumulating over the last decade.
Public surveillance cameras now capture images of the average American more than 200 times per day. There are an estimated 30 million surveillance cameras in the U.S., generating more than four billion hours of video each week. Hidden cameras recording every hour, every day are routinely deployed in hotel elevators, corporate offices, department store aisles, airports, traffic lights, gas station mini-marts and even the local bodega. Thirty-seven states allow security cameras in dressing rooms and bathrooms, often without disclosure.
Al Qaeda's inhuman acts of 9/11, of course, touched off this explosion of covert gadgets into our daily lives--all in the name of greater security. Regardless of the objective, digital voyeurism seems to be addictive. If New York and other cities follow the lead of London in implementing congesting pricing, the number of hidden cameras soon will increase exponentially. Inexpensive digital cameras and video-ready mobile phones are ubiquitous. Consumers have more and more options of distributing pictures and video to a global audience via websites like Flickr and YouTube. Indeed, almost anyone can be a mobile, uncensored television station, with the ability to broadcast any of their video gatherings worldwide.
Like email and phone records, Internet video lives forever in pristine digital form on a hard drive at a data center somewhere. The traffic cams that are popping up at every intersection relentlessly capture and archive passers by. A surveillance photo of a candidate running a red light in 2005 - perhaps including some secret, underage front seat passenger -- may lie in these archives awaiting discovery.
And then there is the "trail of breadcrumbs" we all leave on the Internet every single day.
The record of a candidate's visit to a pornographic website in 1999 could still be retrievable. MPEG video clips of marijuana smoke actually being inhaled, a visit to the local Bada-Bing, a bathroom foot signal - all could become shots seen around the world.
Even the alter egos many people have created in online chats and social communities are not as anonymous as most of us have been lulled into thinking. A technology professional working at any of the major Internet sites could gain access to such data. Such an act would blatantly violate company policy, but, if it happened, it wouldn't be the first time someone with access to potentially damaging information was induced by an envelope under the table to help prevent an "unworthy" candidate from becoming president.
With the net, every candidate's nomination campaign has got to be taking inventory now of the potential "gotcha's" in the closet. We already have seen Barack Obama preemptively confessing to doing weed and blow and Rudy Giuliani conceding to being an adulterer.
Yet even as they go through their list of secrets, do the candidates understand that many of the things they believe were conducted in absolute privacy actually are digitally stored, waiting for the light of day? We all have to ask the question: just how many of our secrets are truly secret? And, if more and more of them are not, what then?