Jewish World Review Nov. 19, 2002 / 14 Kislev 5763
Uncle Same wants your data
Some people read George Orwell's "1984" with a sense of dread. Others read it and think, "Hmmm, cool idea!"
It must have taken such a mind to dream up the "data-mining proposal that's included in the Homeland Security Act that passed the House last week in a Republican-brokered agreement by a 299-121 vote.
It would enable law enforcement to peek into just about every public and private act of every American-and without the ubiquitous cameras and "tele-screens" that "Big Brother" used to control folks in Orwell's nightmare.
Just think of it. Think of all the stuff about you that is now stored in some computer somewhere.
In the commercial world, there are your credit card purchases, your academic record, your bank records, your vacation trips, your medical prescriptions, the Web sites you surf, your e-mails…!
Then there's the stuff the government has on you, like your driver's license, passport records, tollway EZ-Pass records, marriage and divorce records.
Yup, there's all kinds of good stuff that people would like to know about you that you might not like others to know.
Now the Defense Department reportedly wants to set up "a virtual, centralized grand database," a computerized dossier on everyone's private life, a "Total Information Awareness" about every U.S. citizen.
And who's seeking all of this? John Poindexter, the national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan who was convicted of misleading Congress and making false statements in connection with the Iran-Contra scandal. An appeals court later overturned the verdict because Congress had given Poindexter immunity for his testimony.
The retired vice-admiral now heads the "Information Awareness Office" in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which gave us Internet and stealth aircraft technology.
"Data-mining" is his idea, according to stories that first appeared in the New York Times and the Washington Post.
Computers and analysts could sift through this available information to determine patterns of behavior, detect and identify terrorists, decipher plans and presumably enable the United States to pre-empt terrorist acts.
"This is not some far-out Orwellian scenario," Times columnist William Safire, a veteran of the Nixon administration, opined. "It is what will happen if John Poindexter gets the unprecedented power he seeks."
Privacy is not a partisan issue. It's a tough question of what price is too high to pay in President Bush's "war on terror"?
That's a big question lurking deep in the fine print of the Homeland Security Act, a question that has received surprisingly little attention as the measure speeds on a fast-track toward passage with President Bush's backing.
You could sort of understand how the USA PATRIOT Act zipped through Congress. It was right after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. We, the public, were in a panic and grieving deeply.
So we let Congress and President Bush hastily sign away more than a dozen privacy laws, expand the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and relax some of requirements for government agents to report secret eavesdropping to Congress and the courts.
In an atmosphere of fear and tragedy, Americans surrendered some of their privacy rights and gave law-enforcement officials more powers of surveillance than they really needed.
Make their jobs easier, goes the logic of such circumstances, and everyone will feel safer. Feeling safer is what security is all about.
But it's less easy to forgive us, the public, the media and the rest of the chattering classes for refusing to pay attention as more and more of our privacy protections are sucked into the dark abyss of legislative fine print.
That's what governments often itch to do -- take more power than they need when nobody's looking, or when nobody much cares.
Most of media attention the Homeland Security Act has received has been directed at the Republican-Democratic squabbles over Civil Service protections for government workers.
We in the media love such old-century partisan squabbles. They're easy to cover. Meanwhile, some of our most cherished liberties could go up in smoke.
Government needs to have access to information about potential bad guys and gals, but there also have to be limits. America's enduring form of government rests on a delicate system of checks and balances and oversight by one branch or agency over another.
Americans need to vigorously discuss and debate the new definitions of oversight that government officials want to have over the private lives of the rest of us.
It's easy to understand why government officials want these new powers. It is less easy to understand why the rest of us would surrender them without an argument.
Enjoy this writer's work? Why not sign-up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.
Comment on JWR contributor Clarence Page's column by clicking here.
11/15/02: Marriage vs. 'player' impulse
11/11/02: How Oz can help the Dems
11/05/02: We reserve right to be complicated
10/22/02: What the pro-gun lobby and anti-gun lobby have in common
10/18/02: Take Sharpton seriously? For Prez??
10/15/02: A beauty and the bullies
10/08/02: Time to start 'fingerprinting' bullets
10/08/02: Poet laureate hater fell for Internet hoax
10/04/02: Keeping it real, despite howls from black 'leaders'
10/01/02: Revisiting the 'Jogger' horror
09/27/02: Sometimes freedom is a necessary nuisance
09/13/02: Foil Fidel with free trade
09/10/02: Measuring the myth of 'super weed'
09/06/02: A year later: A reality-check
09/03/02: Make better choices before some jury somewhere does
08/20/02: Bid farewell to the Cigarette Century
08/16/02: Rights matter, even in circus trials
08/09/02: Jousting with Rumsfeld's fog of wit
08/06/02: Covert action is cool again
08/01/02: Powell's premature obituaries
07/30/02: A common sense tip on internal snooping
07/18/02: Jacko plays race card badly
07/12/02: Last flight for a pioneer airman
07/08/02: Dems will miss Watts, too
06/28/02: 'Supreme Court reads polls, too
06/25/02: 'The Body' bites, then bows out
06/21/02: Punishment first, then the crime?
06/18/02: Reporting still risky for Haiti's press
06/14/02: Bush's security plan leaves large gaps
06/04/02: Fix FBI's culture gap first
05/28/02: Fidel's new apartheid for tourists
05/21/02: Now McKinney's lunacy sounds like the Democratic Party line
05/19/02: A paradox of historical proportions
05/14/02: 'Murphy Brown' revisited in age of Ozzy
05/10/02: America looks like a model of tolerance and inclusion
05/07/02: Forget it, Bill, you're no Oprah
04/26/02: Mapping out ethnic and racial change
04/23/02: A game of another color
04/19/02: It's high time to open up pot-law debate
04/11/02: 'Osbourne' family values rock, aging Ozzy quakes
03/22/02: Zimbabwe election leaves world sleepless
03/19/02: A slur? Where is thy sting?
03/15/02: A Pearl of wisdom for reporter's unborn son
03/12/02: Army race and gender policies on trial
03/08/02: A short list of losers to be left behind
03/05/02: Revenge of the 'mediasaurus'
02/26/02: Jihads aren't just for Muslims
02/26/02: It's hard to be 'objective' during wartime
02/19/02: Hollywood's new villain: Your HMO
02/12/02: Father of 'Manchild' leaves lasting message
02/08/02: $nookering the reparations crowd
01/31/02: Prisoners of a War of Words
01/29/02: One more Enron woe: Al Sharpton & company
01/25/02: Searching for slaves in bin Laden's attic
01/22/02: Andrew Young's newest 'friend'
01/08/02: Hard-earned lessons from 9-11
12/18/01: Whatever happened to questions about the birds and the bees?
12/14/01: The "White Negro" Taliban?
12/07/01: Jackson's turn to gloat
11/27/01: Friendly warning from a lover of liberty
11/21/01: The face of hunger is changing
11/15/01: Our troubled sense of trust
11/08/01: Lessons about terror from the 'hood
11/06/01: Getting used to the 'new normal'
11/02/01: Wicked ways to make them talk
10/30/01: It's not just about bin Laden
10/26/01: More than mail fell between the cracks
10/23/01: Terrorists threaten urban recovery, too
10/18/01: Sometimes, assassination warranted
10/15/01: Self-censorship rises again
10/12/01: Contradictions illustrate the complicated nature of the new terrorism
10/05/01: Look who's 'profiling' now
10/01/01: Don't trash liberty to save it
09/28/01: Life, love and cell phones during wartime
09/24/01: How to catch an elusive terrorist
09/21/01: The war I was waiting for
09/17/01: When rage turns to hate
09/13/01: Terror attack tests US, let's give right response
09/06/01: U.S. should have stayed and argued
09/04/01: Columbine killer's parents get upclose and personal
08/31/01: Virtual kids? Log me out
08/28/01: Two Africans, one black, one white, same fight
08/23/01: Sharpton for president
08/20/01: Shaking up the rules on keeping secrets
08/16/01: Bush's u-turn on racial goals
08/09/01: Outsider Bubba comes 'in' again
08/06/01: Not ready for 'color-blindness' yet
08/02/01: Immigration timing couldn't be better
07/26/01: Summer of Chandra: An international traveler's perspective
07/17/01: Overthrowing a régime is only the beginning
07/10/01: Big Brother is watching you, fining you
07/05/01: Can blacks be patriotic? Should they be?
06/19/01: Get 'real' about marriage
06/12/01: Amos, Andy and Tony Soprano
06/07/01: Getting tough with the Bush Twins
06/05/01: Bringing marriage back into fashion
05/31/01: "Ken" and "Johnnie": The odd-couple legal team
05/24/01: Sharpton's challenge to Jackson
05/22/01: Test scores equal (a) MERIT? (b) MENACE? (c) ALL OF ABOVE?
05/17/01: Anti-pot politics squeeze the ill
05/15/01: Was Babe Ruth black?
05/10/01: U.N.'s torture caucus slaps Uncle Sam
05/08/01: 'The Sopranos' a reflection of our times
05/03/01: 'Free-fire' zones, then and now
05/01/01: War on drugs misfires against students
04/26/01: Another athlete gets foot-in-mouth disease
04/23/01: 'Slave' boat mystery reveals real tragedy
04/19/01: McVeigh's execution show
04/12/01: Not this time, Jesse
04/05/01: Dubya is DEFINITELY his own man, you fools!
04/02/01: Milking MLK
03/29/01: The candidate who censored himself?
03/22/01: "Will Hispanics elbow blacks out of the way as the nation's most prominent minority group?"
03/19/01: Blacks and the SATs
03/15/01: The census: How much race still matters in the everyday life of America
03/12/01: Jesse is a victim!
03/08/01: Saving kids from becoming killers
03/01/01: Parents owe "Puffy" and Eminem our thanks
© 2001 TMS