You have a right to privacy under the Constitution, but you have very little privacy in your life these days, and the Constitution can’t help you get more.
I used to joke with people that because I had been placed on a government No-Fly list, they should assume that all my phone calls and emails were being recorded. And I was right – because as it turns out, almost everyone’s email and phone messages are being recorded. What was once just a common delusion among paranoid schizophrenics is now a significant part of our reality.
How I ended up on a watch list is irrelevant. It’s also not clear to me exactly how it happened, or who decided that it should happen, although publishing editorials that accused the Bush/Cheney administration of committing war crimes under international law may have been a factor. I just assumed I was subject to surveillance and behaved accordingly.
But someone may be listening to you these days, too, and it’s not because you’re communicating with me. When you use any means of digital communication, you are – at the very least – being recorded by agencies of the government you own.
The National Security Agency intercepts, records and stores something like 1.7 billion emails, phone calls and other forms of communication between American citizens every day. The agency won’t confirm that number, but doesn’t deny that monitoring. It does, however, claim that telling the truth regarding how deeply agents of the government invade your privacy – would violate your privacy.
Facial recognition software and high-resolution video cameras are making it easier for anyone’s physical location to be tracked and monitored. Security cameras are so common in our public spaces that few people pay attention to them, but agencies using sophisticated software are paying attention to the data streams those cameras create.
You might have already noticed that attention being paid to your habits. Information about where you travel and how you spend money is now used to send out specific offers and advertisements meant just for you. Some of that information is collected from cameras watching the lines in front of attractions at places like Disneyland.
If you have a smart phone with GPS software, your phone is the digital equivalent of a radio beacon – it broadcasts its location whenever switched on, and the right hardware can easily locate that signal. Some wireless devices emit a detectable signal even when turned off, which will be true of all devices very soon.
Unless you’re a programming wizard, there’s no such thing as a truly secure or private Internet transmission. Tracking a specific user online is now easier than avoiding being tracked. The best hackers can breach any security measures when they really want to. Law enforcement uses that same skill set to keep an eye on persons of interest.
The right to privacy no longer exists in any public space, and cyberspace was designed to be a public space. We can’t do anything about the lack of privacy in the digital society we’ve built, and we can’t remove the security cameras from the public commons we inhabit. But we’ve surrendered a multitude of other rights that can be reclaimed.
You don’t have the right to freely travel about the country as you once did. In the eyes of the law and its multitude of armed and armored agents, every citizen is seen first as a suspicious individual. If your skin tone ranges from brown to black, you probably know this already from personal experience.
Laws and policies have diminished that right, not technology. Those laws can be changed at any time, and should be changed today. Freedom to assemble, congregate and move around the country is at the core of our inalienable rights.
You no longer have the right to know how your tax dollars are being spent by the government you own, because we haven’t asserted that right for more than a century now. Billions are spent every year on secret stuff, sometimes by secret agencies, and we’ve become accustomed to signing that blank check every year.
That can stop today. We can strip away veils of unneeded secrecy and restore as much transparency in government spending as we want. Our defense department may need to build a top-secret project, and our intelligence agencies may need to conduct secret operations, but they don’t need to hide the cost after the fact.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, whose lower Manhattan-Brooklyn district includes the World Trade Center attack site, recently issued a statement that blames us for giving away our own rights.
"We are in danger of losing our most precious heritage not because a band of thugs threatens our freedom, but because we are at risk of forgetting who we are and what makes the United States a truly great nation. In the last ten years we have begun to let go of our freedoms, bit by bit, with each new executive order, court decision and, yes, act of Congress. We have begun giving away our rights to privacy, our right to our day in court when the government harms us, and…we are continuing down the path of destroying the right to be free from imprisonment without due process of law."
The editorial board of the New York Times has voiced a similar view: “…this country has in the last decade accepted too many damaging and unnecessary changes to its fundamental principles of justice and human rights."
All rights have not been lost. You still have the right to remain silent. You don’t have the luxury of staying silent, however, if you believe in the concept of personal freedom as outlined in the Constitution. We take away our own rights, declare them to be invalid ourselves, by remaining silent and complicit when those rights are ignored.
We are the owners and caretakers of the American republic in perpetuity. We may have sold access and control of our government to the highest bidders, but we never had the rights to sell any of it. We can void those sales anytime we choose, reclaim our government, and reclaim at least some of those rights we gave away.
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