So Many Privacy Invasions, It’s Easy to Miss Big Brother, Personified

I’ve been writing about privacy issues for more than 20 years. And while I consider myself fairly well informed when it comes to this topic, I have to admit that right now, I’m completely overwhelmed.

There are so many controversial, secret and/or illegal privacy invading activities being carried out by the Bush administration that I literally can’t keep track of them all.

Just since the Jan. 1, 2007—only nine weeks ago—the following scandals have hit the headlines:

  • Internet spying. The FBI admitted that it was literally scooping in data on hundreds of thousands Internet users’ browsing habits, e-mail correspondence and newsgroup subscriptions simultaneously, using sophisticated data mining techniques to analyze it, possibly in violation of federal law. I wrote about it here.
  • More Internet spying.  The Bush administration proposed that Internet service providers (ISPs) be forced to save records of what Web sites you view, the names of people you send and receive e-mail to, along with records of who you’ve "chatted" with online—for at least a year—perhaps longer. Read more here.
  • Lifetime travel dossier. The Department of Homeland Security proposed a database that would contain a "lifetime personal travel history" of visitors to the United States as well as lawful permanent residents ("green card" holders).  Your photograph, your fingerprints, and details of each entry, exit or transit would be part of your dossier in a “biographic and biometric travel history database.” Naturally, the system could be extended to U.S. citizens anytime—as it will be to "deter terrorism." I wrote about it here.
  • Eavesdropping operation court-reviewed—or not? In an apparent victory for telephone privacy, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announced that the Bush administration had suspended longstanding policy of initiating national security related wiretaps through secret executive orders, rather than through the courts, as black-letter law requires. However, Gonzales refused to confirm whether the court that authorizes such wiretaps—the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court—was issuing a warrant in each case or rather had given blanket approval to the program—essentially a case of the courts capitulating to an imperial presidency. Read more about it here.
  • National ID card alive and well.  Another apparent victory for privacy came on March 2, when the Department of Homeland Security delayed until 2013 the deadline states have to comply with the provisions of the "Real ID Act." This law creates a national ID card through the back door by requiring state driver’s licenses to contain standardized information that is machine-readable and linked to a central database maintained by the federal government. Some victory: as before, if you don’t have a "compliant" driver’s license by that date, you won’t be able to be admitted to any "federal facility," including airports, government offices, etc.  Here’s what I wrote it previously.
  • Mail opening without a warrant.  Through a "signing statement" that overruled the explicit terms of a law he signed providing greater privacy for postal mail, President Bush quietly asserted a government prerogative to open domestic mail without a warrant, probable cause, or even suspicion that it contains dangerous materials or contraband. Bush has issued at least 750 signing statements during his presidency, more than all other presidents combined. Read more here.

Given this onslaught of outrageous abuses of privacy, I hope you’ll forgive me for not mentioning until now the most shocking privacy invasion of all. It’s a new "profiling" program from the DHS that attempts to spot terrorists by "data mining" vast amounts of information. It’s called ADVISE, and I didn’t pay much attention to it because it seemed to resemble so many other data mining programs being carried on by various government agencies.

On closer examination, though, ADVISE is hugely important, because there don’t appear to be any limits at all on the information to which the system has access. Simply put, ADVISE is the epitome of "Big Brother." Everything about you—your bank records, travel records, Internet browsing records, information you’ve posted on the Internet, articles about you in the media, you name it—will become grist for an enormous database designed to weed out terrorists.

It’s quite clear that ADVISE will catch few, if any terrorists. Data mining simply doesn’t work for this purpose because there are too few terrorists and too many non-terrorists. Even the best data mining software with as wide a sweep as ADVISE apparently has will identify hundreds if not thousands of innocent people as terrorist suspects for every actual terrorist it uncovers. (Read why here.) But what ADVISE and similar systems are good at is identifying large numbers of people who share common characteristics—such as opposition to whatever despotic regime happens to hold the U.S. presidency.

No one’s talking about this—instead, the controversy seems to be revolving around whether ADVISE was using "live" data on real people instead of sanitized data that stripped out identifying characteristics.

Yes, it’s bad if ADVISE was analyzing live data. But that misses the point. How many examples need to be cited to prove the point that "absolute power corrupts absolutely" before Americans begin to understand that there is a tradeoff between freedom and security? Programs such as ADVISE prove that freedom is losing badly. Very badly.

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