Thursday, April 5, 2012

Public Privacy

“April Fools” is an expression used as the punch line to many a gag the other day.  April 1 has been a day of jokes going back to Chaucer’s Canterbury tales in 1392.     I love frivolity, humor and a good gag as much (if not more so) than anybody.  With my self-depreciating sense of humor, I’m also a good sport about being the brunt of a joke.  I’m less enamored with the three separate incidents this week that show how our privacy has gone public...really the basis of what should be a bad joke but isn't.  

The Supreme Court authorized strip searches of people arrested – even for minor incidents.  In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled against a New Jersey man who was strip searched in two county jails following his arrest on a warrant for an unpaid fine that he had, in reality, paid.  This decision makes the TSA seem restrained.  Certainly nobody wants guards to be at risk.  If there’s a reasonable suspicion the practice has been to then do a strip-search with approval – now that bureaucratic process isn’t needed.

There are centuries of case law in the U.S. jurisprudence that support rudimentary approvals by government authority that infringe on individual rights.  If somebody is suspected of a particular crime and there’s an amount of evidence to suggest it – a judge can approve a warrant to have that person’s mail read, conversations bugged, emails traced, etc.  At one time the threshold for such a warrant was pretty high, but since the “War on Terror” it’s largely a rubber stamp.  Now getting judicial approval is apparently too cumbersome. 

Wired Magazine’s April cover story is about the NSA (National Security Agency) building the largest spy center in the world in Utah that will gather data from around the country.  “In secret listening rooms nationwide, NSA software examines every email, phone call and tweet as they zip by."  No warrant or reasonable suspicion is needed.  According to the article, the NSA is nearly finished creating an automated algorithm that will determine which people need to be investigated based on what they write and tweet.

“The Former NSA official held his thumb and forefinger close together: ‘We are that far from a turnkey totalitarian state.’”  He’s a former NSA official – so he’s a lot more generous than this Libertarian.

Not to be outdone, our friends across the pond are also stepping up their surveillance.  Londoners already are captured on video an average of 300 times per day but now the U.K. government is preparing proposals  for a nationwide electronic surveillance network that could potentially keep track of every message sent by any Brit to anyone at any time.

Similar programs were started and abandoned in the U.S. (2003) and the U.K. (2008) after public outcries.  Less than a decade later billions of dollars have gone into the building of the network, and the Wired story is just the latest ‘expose’ to draw attention to the elimination of privacy.  Where’s the public outcry? 

Today we all share freely about our lives on Facebook and other social media sites.  Has that sharing desensitized us to the value of ‘innocent until proven guilty’?  Has the convenience of having nearly any piece of information instantaneously at our fingertips  reduced our resistance to the protections of the Fourth Amendment?   Maybe people trust the government more today than just a few years ago?  A nice punch line...but the real joke is on us for allowing our privacy to go public without a hue and cry.

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