Friday, November 16, 2007

Civil Randomness

Yesterday, I participated in a panel of professors discussing various aspects of Terrorism. Each of us had been given a question to prepare in advance and 15 minutes to present our answers. The question for me was “What is the threat to civil liberties in the War against Terrorism?”

As much as it grieved me to be quoting Justice Rehnquist, he had made a good point: Democracy is a fine balance between freedom and order, and in times of war, Americans have traditionally chosen to have more order than freedom. The trouble now lies in the question of whether or not the “war” on terrorism counts as one of those times.

The thrust of my talk was that civil liberties are each individual’s responsibility to defend. If one fears the government taking away one’s liberties, then one should exercise one’s political power and vote. Yes, vote. With only 19% of the college-age citizens voting, it is hardly fitting that those other 81% complain that the government is trying to restrict their rights.

The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states quite clearly that the people have the right to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects. However, the Supreme Court, when ruling on whether that right extends to the public interaction, has consistently said that if a person has no expectation of privacy, then the 4th Amendment does not come into play.

Furthermore, the 4th Amendment is not applied to business when it comes to the collecting of personal information. That’s not to say that stealing is perfectly acceptable when done by businesses; stealing is stealing, and is punishable by law. It is not, however, a violation of the Constitution.

What is being discussed here is the collection of data on people’s purchasing habits and other bits of personal information. If you have in your wallet a credit card, a store “loyalty” card, or any other card for which you filled out an application form with your personal data, then a business has your personal information. That business can then sell your information to others.

If you have a MySpace, FaceBook, or any of the numerous other Internet blog-like pages, then you have been giving out free information. Employers are known to surf those sites for information about prospective, and current, employees. Think carefully about what your pages say about you.

I have often been amazed at the conversations I have overheard walking down the street in the vicinity of someone chatting on a cell phone. It is as if T.M.I. Chatter believes there’s some sort of cone of silence and no one can tell that Mr/s Chatter is discussing the most intimate of details. Sorry, there’s no such cone and we really can hear everything. I do mean everything, even the parts most of us would be happier not knowing.

It seems incredible, then, that citizens are complaining of the government wanting to collect the data that they are so wantonly giving away.

The Fifth Amendment only says that the government cannot compel you to give up information that may incriminate you. It does not say that the government can’t collect any information about you at all. If businesses can trade in personal information, if all of your cyber-friends can know every last detail about your life, if you blather loudly on your cell phone on a public street, you do not have an expectation of privacy, and thus should not be concerned about the government collecting your data.

What this has to do with terrorism is simple. To protect the country from those who wish to harm it from within, citizens expect their government, at all levels, to provide security. In order to make the country secure, the government has to know what is going on within the country. Data mining seems the best and easiest way to go about it.

Despite what Hollywood has fed us over the decades, terrorists are not evil geniuses. They have not figured out how to exist outside modern society and the reach of all its technology. If Barnes and Nobles can know what reading materials terrorists have purchased by tracking that information on their B&N membership card, if Visa can know what reading materials terrorists purchased at Barnes and Noble using that credit card, it should surprise no one that the U.S. government would also like to know.

In the continuing effort to keep terrorists from flying, the government has a “no fly” list of suspects, or, if you’d like, persons of interest. If your name is on the list because you are unlucky enough to share that name with someone else out there in the world who is of interest to the U.S. government, life is about to become simpler: soon, when you purchase a airline ticket, you will be asked for your birthdate. If you don’t want to share that information, do not be surprised that you will have difficulty getting through security at the airport. Furthermore, this data – your name, birthdate, and flight information – will be shared with the U.S. government. If you don’t want it to know, don’t fly; I hear the train is a lovely way to see the country, even if it is usually late.

As for me, I am La Professora; I know how to keep my technological profile low and my personal information private.