Americans have always been defined by their robust views of individual autonomy and privacy. However, in the last ten years, privacy has suffered massive reductions in the United States due to both governmental and private surveillance, data mining, and searches. Now an international privacy groups ranks for the United States and England as some of the worst “endemic surveillance societies.”
Privacy International ranks Greece, Romania and Canada had the best privacy records of 47 countries surveyed with Malaysia, Russia and China were ranked worst.
Simon Davies, director of Privacy International notes that the situation in the United States has not changed under Democratic control of Congress, which continues to give mere lip service to the protection of privacy.
The fact is that we are changing into a fishbowl society. Civil liberty-minded citizens may recall the president’s plan to create the Total Information Awareness program, a massive databank with the ability to follow citizens in real time by their check-card purchases, bank transactions, medical bills and other electronic means.
It is all part of this administration’s insatiable desire for information. With regard to its own conduct and information, the administration has fought against the notion of transparency – from refusing to disclose meetings with lobbyists, to denying Congress information needed for oversight, to threatening journalists with prosecution for revealing secret programs such as the NSA domestic surveillance program.
Yet, when it comes to citizens, the administration demands total transparency to allow it to monitor everyday transactions and conduct.
It is perhaps the greatest danger that can face a free society: a government cloaked in secrecy with total information on its citizens.
For most of our history, one of the greatest protections for civil liberties has been the practical inability of the government to surveil a large number of citizens at one time. In the last couple of decades, those technological barriers have fallen away.
In the meantime, the Supreme Court has removed legal barriers to the government’s acquisition of personal information by allowing it to obtain the records of banks, telephone companies and other businesses without a warrant. This combination of legal and technological changes has laid the foundation for a fishbowl society in which citizens can be objects of continual surveillance.
Americans have long been defined by our privacy values. We have fiercely defended what Justice Louis Brandeis called “our right to be left alone.” It is only in the assurance of privacy that free thoughts and free exercise of rights can be truly exercised. Such privacy evaporates with doubt; it is why the Constitution seeks to avoid the chilling effect of uncertainty in government searches and seizures.
Yet, the problem has been that these programs have been revealed and analyzed in isolation. Each insular program has been defended in insular terms. It is just domestic telephone numbers or just international transactions. Citizens have become accustomed to a steady stream of secret programs and new forms of government monitoring. It is something that our fiercely independent ancestors would have never imagined.
Privacy is dying in America – not with a fight but a yawn.
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