Thursday, September 20, 2012

A chilly fall

This weekend is the September equinox – autumn begins.  In many parts of the country leaves are starting to change color:  fall is in the air.   The chill covering the United States has less to do with meteorological patterns than with a technology intrustion.  Three recent events provide an interesting and disturbing view at how little Americans resist the whittling away of freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
Congress  last week passed a reauthorization of the FISA Amendment Act, a law that gives unchecked surveillance authority to the government. The National Security Agency is permitted to conduct surveillance of Americans’ emails and phone calls without a warrant and without having to report to any authority.  The Fourth Amendment’s promise of protection against unreasonable searches has not yet even been challenged by a law that’s been on the books for over a decade and is regularly renewed - even in this hyper partisian environment. 
The FBI last month announced that the next generation of technology allows it to match criminal databases and civil databases to gather information on citizens.  The system uses individual biometric data to track each of us within 1,000 meters.  According to the ACLU  a traffic cop can be using biometric binoculars at a stop sign.  When the device recognizes you it records and tracks your presence there.  The same is true with cameras on the streets, cameras in police cars - cameras everywhere.  So what if you’re just out to get a quart of milk and aren't committing a crime?  Your movements are now recorded forever and go into a database.  It’ll certainly makes the real-life version of Law and Order easy, but obliterates the concept of privacy and freedom.  Presumed Innocent is going the way of the horse and buggy, rotary phones and network television.
Google last week denied the White House’s request to remove a Muslim film from You Tube.  Some claim the film has been the cause of recent violence in the Middle East.  It may be a vile video - but the very first protection the framers envisioned was freedom of expression.
One of Government’s roles is to keep its citizenry safe.  Each country has its own rules as to how to do that – what works in America doesn’t necessarily work for Russia or China.  The tension between security and freedom has existed since the dawn of civilization.  The founders of the United States crafted a Bill of Rights, a Constitution and a system of checks and balances to manage the tension.  It has largely worked and Jeffersonian-style democracy has been the ideal worldwide. 
It works when there's an informed and engaged electorate that pushes back against laws that restrict the freedoms promised under the Constitution.  The media is supposed to serve as that provocateur and educator.  Where are these voices?  Sure there’s the ACLU, the Libertarians and other specialized entities that vociferously fight these actions – but the conversation is happening at the fringes and they aren't having any impact, despite public opinion polls.

When Americans are asked by Gallup or others - consistently over the years between 75% and 85% of the population rejects the breaches of privacy.  Yet freedoms continue to be curtailed – with more frequency.  These are just three examples in one small period of time.  The fact that the White House led by a former Constitutional Law Professor asked to have content removed from the airwaves with little uproar from the public indicates that it’s not just a chilly fall – it’s going to be a bone cold winter.

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