Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Privacy desensitized and declassified

I don't get it either. Maybe it's the way the polling questions were posed but why don't more Americans object to having their phone records and their privacy under the government magnifying glass? A brilliant op/ed from Eugene Robinson today elaborates on why the home of the brave has succumbed to becoming a nation of fear.

If a psychiatrist were to put the nation on the couch, the shrink's notes would read something like this: "Patient feels vulnerable to attack; cannot remember having experienced similar feeling before. Patient accustomed to being in control; now feels buffeted by outside forces beyond grasp. Patient believes livelihood and prosperity being usurped by others (repeatedly mentions China). Patient seeks scapegoats for personal failings (immigrants, Muslims, civil libertarians). Patient is by far most powerful nation in world, yet feels powerless. Patient is full of unfocused anger."
It's shameful to watch Bush and his minions take advantage of these acute symptoms. And if the immigration issue didn't threaten to disrupt so many people's lives, it would be amusing to witness Bush's attempts to calm the irrational fears he has so often encouraged. It's at least somewhat comforting, in a way, to know that with the president's approval ratings so low and Congress in a state of dysfunction, we may be entering a phase of one-party gridlock in which nothing much gets done -- which means there's a chance that things might not get much worse.
But it's unnerving to see the country so unnerved. I intend to return to this theme of anxiety from time to time; I don't fully understand it, but I think it's important. Diagnosis is the first step toward treatment.
Yup, let's call it what it is--fear--and get out of denial that just because virtually all of us Americans wouldn't plot or conspire with terrorists to blow up our beautiful country, that we can trust the government with our phone records.

Think about it. Networks of your calling circle, and your calling circles' calling circle, and beyond can be examined and analyzed. Connections will be made. Data will be bumped up against other databases--perhaps financial, medical, motor vehicle records, and more--all within reach using a government contractor to complete a dossier on who you are, your transactions, and your relationships. Love affairs, sports bookies, and secret investments or savings won't be secret much longer and God help you if you have a political liaison within six degrees of separation from your calling circle who opposes Big Brother Bush, Inc. God help you even more if you traveled to Las Vegas and visited a strip club as the 9/11 hijackers did--information available from travel and credit card transactions tied to your telephone number or calling network.

And what if the government screws up? Remember Katrina? How about Hayden and 9/11? We still don't know where the $9 billion that the CPA managed in Iraq disappeared to and who got it. Ask Brandon Mayfield how an investigation can go bad and the price he paid in attorney's fees and investigators to clear his name on top of his time in jail though he was innocent. Thank god, he could afford a good defense team and was exonerated.

If the FBI can issue NSLs to reporters to monitor their telephone contacts, don't think ordinary citizens can dodge the high-powered scope of an investigation handed down from federal to local law enforcement. If you don't think that can happen, that our government wouldn't abuse the privacy of its citizens, then ask a group of vegans in Atlanta. Or gay servicemen. Or peace-loving quakers.

It's the magical thinking of children to trust government officials who have shown that their word is as good as all those WMDs we found in Iraq--that some won't abuse the public's trust with bribery, money laundering, and corruption schemes involving $20,000 per night resort bills, hookers, inflated defense contracts, or worse--and won't misuse our personal data. It's naive to think innocent Americans won't suffer from the wide net our government will cast over our private records. It's dishonorable to blood that has been shed so that we can be free to misplace our hope in an administration that has yet to prove it can be relied upon. And it's irresponsible to allow our sons and daughters--who use parent's telephones--to get dragged into the web because we didn't protect them.

The nation of fear hasn't rationally thought through the privacy issues and the vulnerabilities to abuse the compilation of our telephone records can entail. But when all of us do, I hope it isn't too late.