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 V.15 No.26 | June 29 - July 5, 2006 

Commentary

Big Brother is Watching You, But Who's Watching Big Brother?

Why shouldn't I let the government spy on me? I haven't done anything wrong; I've got nothing to hide. It's an argument that's been voiced with increasing frequency in the last few months.

Let's put aside, for the moment, all concerns that the government might not always have the best interests of its people in mind. Let's pretend, for now, that the government isn't finding new ways to criminalize formerly legal behavior. Let's ignore, for the time being, recent attacks on freedom of speech, freedom of the press and other basic constitutional guarantees. (But do keep in mind that Republican conservatives have amped up their rhetoric claiming it's “unpatriotic” not to support the president or to call for the withdrawal/redeployment of troops in Iraq. Following the passage of H. Res. 861, which declares that the United States “will prevail in the global war on terror, the struggle to protect freedom from the terrorist adversary,” it doesn't take much to imagine a day when voting Democrat will be considered giving aid and comfort to the enemy.)

Naturally, we are also required to believe the government's claim that all domestic wiretapping (not to mention the recently revealed program allowing counterterrorism officials to gain access to financial records from a vast international database and examine banking transactions) is not a trolling exercise and is only being carried out on Americans who are directly linked to al Qaeda. Of course, if USA Today's initial May 10 report about “tens of millions” of people being targeted by NSA wiretaps is true, that means approximately 10 percent of Americans are working for al Qaeda.

Assuming the government is 100-percent correct in its intelligence (which would be a first), tapping our phones and digging into our financial records are a necessary evil in today's post-9/11 world. Never mind what Benjamin Franklin said about giving up liberty for safety, this is a new enemy, and a new way of combating it is called for. Assuming all of that, what's so wrong with letting the government probe our personal records, monitor our Internet usage, install cameras in our neighborhoods and stick RFID tags in our bodies?

The answer is simple. We got a clear-cut answer in May when it was revealed that personal electronic information on up to 26.5 million military veteransfrom Social Security numbers to birth dateswas stolen from the residence of a Department of Veterans Affairs employee who had taken the data home against department regulations. That answer was reiterated in June when three laptop computers containing private information on about 2,400 public employees and citizens who use government programs were reported stolen from the offices of Minnesota Auditor Patricia Anderson. As if that weren't enough, the Department of Energy recently admitted that eight months earlier, data on 1,500 employees and contractors was hacked from their computers. Energy inspector general Gregory Freidman testified before the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations that the department has failed to report as much as 50 percent of all cyber-attacks to authorities.

Never mind the incredibly vague assurances that the thieves “very likely” knew nothing about the data, or that the information was “probably” erased. The point is, data can be stolen quite easily. And in today's high-tech, identity-theft world, data is like money in the bank. Your money, most likely.

Given the increasing amount of computer crime, is it really wise to allow anyone to gather personal information without our knowledge? Do you really want your name, address, Social Security number, credit card information, telephone records, financial data, etc. all conveniently compiled on some government-issue PC somewhere? Perhaps the government really is making America safer from terrorists. But is it making you more vulnerable to identity theft, credit card fraud and other crimes in the process?

 
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