By William Kanapaux
the technology that promised an information revolution, the
federal government is pursuing unprecedented access to personal
data—how scary is that?
live in a digital world. EZPass scanners register our movements
through toll booths, discount cards record our purchases at
grocery stores and Internet providers keep track of our e-mails
and Web browsing.
In little more than 10 years, we have become a society transformed
by these leaps in technology. We’ve become accustomed to leaving
a digital trail, bits and pieces of our daily lives recorded
with the swipe of a card or the click of a mouse. And while
we may experience a slight sense of unease—“Where does all
this information go? Is it secure?”—we accept it as a benevolent
trade-off for the sake of convenience.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, that trade-off has turned a bit
more ominous. Under the guise of domestic security, officials
within the Bush administration have begun the process of stripping
away a significant portion of our Constitutional rights to
gain broad powers for conducting electronic surveillance.
The justification for such action is that the United States
has historically reigned in civil liberties during wartime
for security reasons. But there is no historical precedent
for what is now occurring.
While the public worries over the war in Iraq and the prospect
of potential terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, forces within
the Bush administration are busy at work on the home front.
Their targets are our First Amendment right to free speech
and our Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search
and seizure, not to mention protections offered by the Fifth
and Sixth amendments that could come in handy if one were
ever arrested on the suspicion of actually being a terrorist.
First came the USA P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act of 2001, a bill that
brought sweeping changes to the federal government’s investigative
powers even as it eliminated checks and balances that would
ensure that the executive branch did not abuse those powers.
The act—which derives its acronym from the ungodly sounding
Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate
Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism—was pushed
through Congress with little debate in the weeks following
the 9/11 attacks, during an anthrax scare that put lawmakers
into siege mode.
The act gave the federal government broad authority for conducting
electronic surveillance and wiretaps. As long as the information
is certified as likely to be relevant to an ongoing criminal
investigation, it is fair game. Law-enforcement officials
now can listen to telephone conversations, read e-mail, monitor
Web activity and track public library usage, all without showing
evidence that a crime has been committed or that the subject
is even suspected of wrongdoing. The FBI need only claim that
the information is necessary for an intelligence investigation.
Judicial oversight of the process is limited at best, and
the law prohibits libraries and Internet service providers
from informing you that the feds have been rifling through
your virtual file cabinets.
But it doesn’t stop there. In February, a leaked U.S. Justice
Department document emerged that would greatly expand the
power of the executive branch to conduct secret investigations.
In the clamor that followed, the department denied that the
Domestic Security Enhancement Act, known as P.A.T.R.I.O.T.
II, was anything other than an early draft of possible proposals
for filling gaps in P.A.T.R.I.O.T. I.
But those who saw the document say it looked like a finished
product ready for delivery to the House floor.
A host of national organizations representing both left- and
right-wing interests have objected to P.A.T.R.I.O.T. II. Many
worry that the administration will introduce it in Congress
following a terrorist attack or during a period of heightened
alert, when fear and patriotic fervor are likely to prevail
over reasoned debate.
The proposal’s critics say its passage would essentially create
a police state—a seemingly unthinkable possibility given this
country’s legacy of Constitutional protections.
Technology would play a large role in the Justice Department’s
plans. Passage of P.A.T.R.I.O.T. II would pave the way for
the infamous Total Information Awareness (TIA) system to fully
emerge as an unfettered data-gathering program. Federal agents
would no longer need a court order to access consumer credit
reports, an important building block for a storehouse of private
data. As part of the Department of Defense, the TIA program
would integrate existing databases that track the daily transactions
of average Americans and then use data-mining models to look
for patterns that might distinguish normal activity from terrorist
But that would only be the capstone of a concerted effort
by the Bush administration to harness the massive information-
gathering potential of our digital world in the name of homeland
Why does it matter whether the government knows what books
and videos you check out from the library? Or what Web sites
you visit? Or even the content of your e-mails, which most
likely are filled with the mundane details of your daily life?
Why should it matter if you have nothing to hide?
If you’re clean, the thinking goes, then what do you have
to worry about? After all, the purpose of these bills is to
prevent terrorism. Nobody wants to relive the anguish of 9/11,
and if there is a way to stop it, then that course of action
should be taken.
But there are problems with that line of reasoning: For starters,
the measures being pushed by the Justice Department threaten
to dilute agents’ efforts in tracking down terrorists by overwhelming
them with a flood of irrelevant data.
Ultimately, the question is not whether any one individual
has something to hide but what we as a nation have to lose.
In a cruel twist of irony, early predictions that the Internet
would create a new age for democracy and freedom of speech
have given way to a totalitarian impulse to marshal digital
information into a giant database where personal data can
be dissected and analyzed.
Without the most stringent of controls and oversight, such
a system would give absolute power to those who ran it. Political
foes would be at a distinct disadvantage. Those who championed
political positions and ideologies at odds with the party
in power could be silenced simply by the threat of having
their personal data scrutinized and used against them.
Free speech would be become a token phrase. Little of our
daily lives would escape the notice of the vast database and
the Defense Department’s best and brightest programming minds
as they embarked upon the creation of massively powerful search
That a government would try to create the mother of all databases
seems almost inevitable in a world where gigabyte is a household
term. But there is no reason to accept as inevitable that
technology will be used to erode our Constitutional rights.
As it stands, the executive branch can pluck personal data
from the electronic stream with relative ease and a minimum
of oversight. As long as the FBI or other law enforcement
agencies say the magic words, “terrorism investigation,” they
can cast as wide a net as they like.
Consequently, we have reached a point where technology threatens
the very foundation of our democracy. It is our responsibility
to make sure that the necessary checks and balances from the
judicial and legislative branches of government remain in
place in order to keep that from happening.
For more information, visit the Electronic Privacy Information
Center at www.epic.org. Click on “Patriot Act I & II”
under Hot Topics.