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Tom Chaney, R750: When the inmates run the asylum

Of Writers and Their Books No. R750:, essay on privacy issues When the inmates run the asylum by Robert Straus. First appeared 18 February 2007.
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:Tom Chaney R749: The Story of UK College of Medicine

By Tom Chaney

When the inmates run the asylum

Time was in this land when one could flee from one's past, change identity and begin again. I think of my ancestor who married the woman of his desire, no matter the objection of family, stole a horse, and carried his new bride to the wilds of Kentucky.

West was the place to start over. When the burden of one's name and face became too oppressive -- or when the law was near at hand -- "Go West, young man," became the great eraser of identity. Take the new name and the new face. Be forever born again, and again, as needed.

But the frontier is closed. Try heading west these days. The banks can tell where you got money on your debit card. Your Kroger card shows where you bought groceries. Even the No-Tell Motel will take your plastic. A camera on the street of a new city records your face.

Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of 1941 the industrial might of the United States kicked into high gear to tool up for war with the Axis powers. The steel, munitions, and auto industries immediately went onto war footing. Men lined up at the recruiting centers and Rosie the Riveter got out her coveralls.

After the terrible attack on the World Trade Center in September of 2001 another sort of industry seized the chance to get a foot in the federal door and its hand in the national pocket book in the completely legitimate fight against those who would inspire terror in us.

"[O]ur government leaders could not resist the promise that information technology would make us safe again. Even as the fires burned where almost three thousand people had died, they turned to computers, surveillance gear, and mountains of information about Americans as part of their nascent war on terror. This was an earnest impulse, shared by small-town police and G-men alike. If we could only know more about everyone, they reasoned, we would be able to discern the lethal few from the many good."

Thus the occasion for Robert O'Harrow, Jr's book No Place to Hide (Free Press, 2006). This Washington Post reporter chronicles the rise of information technology during the 1990's; its open-armed embrace by the government following the World Trade Center attack; and the danger posed to the liberties of citizens.

Senator Patrick Leahy (R. Vermont) raised a strong voice as the Homeland Security authorizations gathered steam. "He made it clear that he would not be rushed into approving a bill. 'We do not want the terrorists to win by having basic protections taken away from us,' he said. It was a boilerplate quote from Ben Franklin that Leahy invoked repeatedly: 'Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty no safety.'"

O'Harrow chronicles enough horror stories about identity theft in the electronic age; about the advent of biometric (the use of finger and palm prints and digital facial photography) identity markers; about the continued collection of information by an array of private companies to give watchdogs of civil liberties pause.

The Department of Homeland Security saw that new electronic developments in passenger screening, and thus the identification of terrorists, could be useful in the identification of illegal immigrants. Federal, state, and local police saw the potential for the apprehension of criminals. If the stated promise to limit electronic identification to screening those who would fly to do us harm was not made cynically, then it was made by stupid men who did not know their history.

It is then but a simple step to create profiles of illegal immigrants, criminals, or those folks most likely to buy a particular brand of deodorant.

"We have the right of passage and travel. To put an electronic tollbooth at the airport is a slippery slope," according to Ben Bell who resigned in 2004 as director of the new Office of National Risk Assessment. "This is America," he said. "It is not a police state."

O'Harrow notes that a profound change has come into society with the advent of the electronic gathering, storing, and transferring of information.

"Like virtual comets in cyberspace, we all leave huge trails of electronic information behind," according to Bell.

Where we shop and what our shopping habits are; where and how we do our banking; where we browse on the web; where our image is taken by cameras on the street is a part of the massive mound of data available. New software tools can assemble that data in minutes.

The book concludes "More than ever before, the details about our lives are no longer our own. They belong to the companies that collect them, and the government agencies that buy or demand them in the name of keeping us safe."

Electronic diaries are being kept of the details of our lives.

"Only we have no control over the diaries, and we can't even know what they say about us. And there is no place to hide."

O'Harrow's documentation of this increased intrusion we have admitted into our lives in the name of convenience is skillfully made with careful documentation and copious examples. William Safire wrote in a New York Times book review that "No Place to Hide might just do for privacy protection what Rachel Carson's Silent Spring did for environmental protection. [His] is the work of a careful, thorough, enterprising reporter."

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73/111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2012-02-19 09:14:58
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