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A Day In the Life of Citizen Parrish

It's been a ferociously bad week. Not just for privacy, but for the potential for government abuse.
 
 
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Here's what I did yesterday:

I went to my pharmacy, picking up refills of Aciphex and Acyclovir and a six- pack of Diet Coke and some ibuprofen. I stopped along the way at my credit union to make a deposit, and at a Chevron to fill my 97 VW Jetta with unleaded. (I also got a candy bar in the mini-mart.) I had lunch with a friend downtown after attending a staff meeting at Seattle Weekly. I made seven or eight phone calls on my cell phone, one of which was to Houston and the rest local, before coming home and listening to six more messages on my voice mail.

I had 142 messages in my email inbox when I downloaded it at noon. I replied to about 15 of them, and sent files with a note to two different editors explaining that I was sick as a dog (hence the ibuprofen) and thus running late. I also made a couple calls later in the afternoon canceling out on an evening meeting for the same reason. I went to bed early with my sweetie. We're not married. That's related to the reason why, after the downtown lunch, I had met with and retained the services of a family law attorney.

All in all, it was a pretty dull day; I'll spare you the details of what I ate (and, in the case of dinner, brought back up) or who I e-mailed or what I mailed at the post office, but you get the idea. The reason I mention all this is that every single one of these activities can now be duly noted, electronically, by the U.S. government. It can look at my phone records, my credit card purchases, my health insurance claims and medical records, check my driving record and vehicle registrations, read my email and listen to my calls, check my banking records.

And if, for whatever reason, something in that laundry list (and the even greater detail they're fully capable of) should perk their interest, they can find out a lot more. They can investigate me legally; interview my friends and subpoena my attorney; have me followed, search my home or office or car without my knowledge. If they decide they'd rather not have me come visit your community, they can ban me from all air travel. Or perhaps just throw me in jail indefinitely, without charges or access to counsel or family.

Extreme? Sure. But it's all legal. Check out what's gone on just in the last week:

  • The Senate passed the Homeland Security bill, a massive, nearly 500-page bill. As with the USA PATRIOT Act, this, too, was deposited on senators' desks only late last week with no time to read hundreds of pages of newly inserted arcana. The new details buried in the text are only now being fully discovered. Significantly, Democrats obtained some last-minute concessions on things like labor rights for federal workers and some -- but not all -- of the most egregious pork and corporate favors slipped in for Friends of George, but the privacy portions of the bill sailed through largely untouched. Since the House already passed essentially the same bill, it's now good as law.
  • With the Homeland Security bill came the first publicity for a new enterprise sold to the government by a convicted felon -- John Poindexter, whose last bright idea for the feds was selling the Reagan administration on a scheme to illegally sell arms to Iran (our enemy at the time, because we were arming and funding Saddam Hussein instead). Poindexter then funneled the proceeds to America's private "contra" army in Central America, also in violation of a Congressional ban. Now Poindexter is back, with his past guilty verdicts for lying to Congress and shredding Iran-Contra documents (avoiding prison only through a technicality that threw out his convictions) apparently considered by the Bushies as not just insignificant, but probably as character recommendations.

For months, it turns out that Poindexter has been the new director of the Pentagon's Information Awareness Office. Now, with passage of the Homeland Security bill, he has funding and authorization to create a matrix program called Total Information Awareness. Poindexter's brainchild -- he's been working on information software and systems since getting drubbed out of public service over a decade ago -- would create a gargantuan database of every financial, medical, employment, school, credit, and government record out there for every American -- the sort of data collection outlined above. The idea is to set up software to look for patterns that might arouse suspicion of potential terrorist activity -- hotels, travel, purchases, and the like. Even toll booths. Just don't ask whether the potential terrorist is stocking up on guns. It's probably the only record that John Ashcroft's DoJ won't keep.

  • Since the provisions in the USA PATRIOT Act that greatly expanded government wiretap and surveillance abilities, reports have been trickling out that use of wiretaps has been up sharply. There's also been anecdotal evidence, with Ashcroft's post-9/11 regulations allowing investigation of individuals for religious or political reasons -- even if they're not suspected of a crime -- that airport security guards have refused to allow a number of left-leaning political activists to board flights. Any flights.
  • Now this week comes word that such a list does, indeed, exist; a Salon.com reporter reports confirmation that at least 1,000 names have been compiled of persons considered a security risk for any air travel within the U.S. Still unknown is what agents use as the criteria to get on the list, or how (and whether) one can get off the list.
  • Speaking of lists, an article in Tuesday's Wall Street Journal described how a list of persons "wanted for questioning" regarding terrorism in the immediate days after 9/11 -- not even necessarily suspected of any crime -- has taken on a life of its own even though the FBI stopped updating and releasing it over a year ago. Because the FBI circulated the list to an unprecedented number of companies and public agencies in an effort to sweep up the individuals it wanted to question, once the feds stopped updating the lists were left intact for their recipients -- and circulated even further through colleagues and through the Internet. Now individuals -- even people who were listed due to mistaken identity -- are being identified all over the world as "suspected terrorists," and the FBI says there's nothing they can do.
  • Also this week, an appeal of last spring's surprising ruling by the top- secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has overturned that ruling. At issue was a post-9/11 bid by the federal government, under the USA PATRIOT Act, to use looser foreign intelligence standards to conduct investigations in the United States. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it's now legal for the U.S. to spy on its own citizens.
  • The FISC ruling overshadowed another appeal, in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, where an effort to sue the government on behalf of hundreds of Guantanamo Bay detainees being denied legal counsel was thrown out, because the petitioners were deemed to not have legal standing in the case. Nobody does, apparently, except the people not allowed to appear in court or retain counsel.
  • If all this is sounding like the potential for a police state, relax. It already is a police state, at least for non-citizens; even permanent residents in the U.S. have been living since 9/11 with the reality that even if they're accused of no crime, they can be swept off the street by police and literally never seen again -- deported or simply held indefinitely, with none of the rights of due process you always thought were part of the U.S. constitution.

The latest to get shipped off? The mother of accused teen D.C. sniper Lee Malvo. Mom called authorities because she was alarmed that her son had fallen under the influence of a dangerous man. She was right; for her troubles, she was thrown in jail and is now on her way back to the Caribbean. That'll teach any non-citizen with a tip regarding a potential terrorist.

It's been a ferociously bad week. Not just for privacy -- that's getting duly noted in at least some press reports -- but for the potential for government abuse. And perhaps most frighteningly, while some progressives and conservatives are starting to get agitated about the potential for state abuse of power, few people are talking about who else might have access to all that information when it's gathered: Corporations? Mass marketers? Schools? Employers? Creditors? People hawking Viagra online? Heck, in a few years perhaps every detail of your life will be available online for the enterprising snoop. Much of it already is.

It's not just the Bush Administration at fault; these developments would be impossible without the active collusion of many leading Democrats, including eight years of the Clinton Administration -- prior to Dubya, the worst administration for civil liberties in U.S. history. Ditto for spineless congressional Democrats who were steamrolled by Bush with the USA PATRIOT Act, had a year to absorb the lessons, and then got steamrolled in exactly the same way this week with the Homeland Security bill.

Most of Bush's freshly legalized abuses aren't happening -- yet. Just because they've become legal does not mean they're widespread. But the Dubya cabal is calling for a "War On Terror" (with its attendant erosion of citizens' rights) that will last generations -- "The new 100 Years' War," according to Dick Cheney. If the Bush Administration continues to move as aggressively as it already has in less than two years for the evisceration of civil liberties, the erosion of privacy, the expansion of law enforcement powers, and the adoption of secrecy in more and more of our legal and government processes, totalitarianism could be around a much closer corner than most of us think.

It's already become clear that this administration's desire for power is an end in itself, far outstripping any information or investigative needs the task of preventing terrorism might require. If anything, the government has too much information, rather than not enough, as it attempts to sort out the meaningful anti-terror clues buried amongst gazillions of bytes of white noise. But if the goal is perpetuating fear, expanding power, and shutting down dissent, all that information is much more easily put to use.

Among those alarmed by the Bush totalitarian impulse, comparisons to Nazism seem to be rampant. That's particularly misleading. We're not there. We may never come close. But if the United States does lose its citizen freedoms, it won't look like Germany in the 1930s. People could, and did, leave Germany; Hitler's reach was not global. His government did not have every last detail of every German's personal life. If George W. Bush, or a successor -- from either party -- truly wants to crack down, forget Hitler. The result will be much, much worse than anything that has ever come before.

Now would be a good time to start mounting a massive, effective opposition, while we still have a few freedoms left to lose. And it would also be a good time to consider how to keep as many details of your life as possible out of the government's data banks.