Simon Williamson

America's dwindling right to privacy

2013-06-07 08:04

Simon Williamson

It's quite hard to work out just where to begin on this. The "Land of the Free" is going to be spending some good cash on its PR department if it wishes to keep this part of its national brand.
 
It was only a few weeks ago that reports of the Department of Justice secretly, and without any sort of warrant, nabbed three months of phone records at three different Associated Press offices, of over 100 journalists. Which meant that anyone source who phoned any of those reporters during that period of time now has their phone number within the corruptible reaches of the government.
 
I just want to repeat that this apprehension of the records was secret, warrantless and PERFECTLY legal.
 
Now, I know journalists and people who work in news tend to react rather vociferously when it is us who are being lashed by the government. While I have personally felt there is national concern in such debates, I obviously have a compelling personal interest in the outcome of the argument, or enacted policy.

Fiddling with news about government

As far as I am concerned, when the government declares a war on sources - intimidating people who wish to give information to the press - there is a huge impact this has on the news that journalists can bring to you, particularly when relating to government (aka the people that control everything). In other words, government is trying to fiddle with the news about government - isn't that a great recipe for a great democracy? (Just to be clear the correct answer is no.)
 
But who knew the US government would make this worry such an easy sell: It isn't just journalists who are being spied on, but everyone. According to The Guardian US, Verizon, the USA's largest cellphone provider by market share, was forced by the National Security Agency to hand over the call records of millions of customers, according to a top-secret court order issued in April. Indeed, a court order, but through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, established by an act in the late seventies, to which the government is the only party to its proceedings. This court has acceded to the government's wishes and produced this special kind of warrant 33 942 times, and rejected the requests 11 times. Yay, go independence. 
 
As Verizon isn't the focus of the investigation, it is likely that all the other cellular phone operators are under the same orders, and that the government is now indiscriminately sweeping up everyone's phone records with absolutely no probable cause to do so. Without reason to suspect anyone of committing any crimes, if you're in America, the government forces your cellphone company to hand over all of your records because terrorism (in fact this applies to any business, not just cellular phones). And while the press keeps throwing around the term "unconstitutional", the Supreme Court has basically okayed the process under the guise that information given to a third party (in this instance a cellphone company) ceases to enjoy constitutional privacy protection.
 
The laws permitting the government to conduct such practices are plentiful, but the two in question are the Patriot Act and additions to the aforementioned Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which have both been amended and passed again enthusiastically by Congress, including by both President Barack Obama and Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel when they were both serving in the Senate. The most recent version of the legislature giving the government the authority to dig through random people's details passed with overwhelming majorities.
 
DNA samples

For good measure, the Supreme Court ruled earlier this week that the police may take DNA samples willy-nilly from those they apprehend and suspect of crimes, without any probable cause. And again this kind pisses all over the USA's fourth amendment constitutional principle against unreasonable searches (often referred to as harassment).
 
Russ Feingold, the only senator to vote against the Patriot Act when it was enacted in 2001 said on Thursday, "In 2001, I first voted against the PATRIOT Act because much of it was simply an FBI wish list that included provisions allowing our government to go on fishing expeditions that collect information on virtually anyone."

How prophetic. 

- Simon Williamson is a freelance writer. Follow @simonwillo on Twitter.

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