Hyperpat\’s HyperDay

SF, science, and daily living

Big Brother is Alive and Well

Posted by hyperpat on May 27, 2008

I just finished reading Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother over the weekend. As a book, I thought it was great, harkening back to some of the best YA books of the fifties (my review is posted here). But the book paints a very disturbing picture of the current political climate, most especially the concept that the government has the right to monitor everything you do or say, as empowered by the Patriot Act.

Now perhaps the scenario painted in this book goes a little too far, but it points out a very real danger that the US might fall into becoming a police state as bad as that of the Stalinist regime merely because people are frightening by the possibility of a terrorist attack, and want something done about it. The trouble is, the methods used to fight this terrorist possibility are effectively exactly what the terrorists want: a nation so in fear that it will give up the item that so distinguishes the US from other government models, as embodied most directly and plainly in the 1st Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The Patriot Act give specific powers to various agencies to monitor things like email, phone calls, credit card charges, and even what library books you’ve checked out, merely by presenting a ‘National Security Letter’ to the holder of the information, without recourse to a warrant. Now at the very least, this violates the 4th Amendment provision against ‘unreasonable search and seizure’, and at least one judge has ruled against this practice on 1st Amendment grounds (7 Sept 2007):

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero in New York said the FBI’s use of secret “national security letters” to demand such data violates the First Amendment and constitutional provisions on the separation of powers, because the FBI can impose indefinite gag orders on the companies and the courts have little opportunity to review the letters.

Freedom of speech has also been curtailed by the Digital Millennium Act of 1998, which specifically criminalizes publishing information that might lead to ways to ‘unlock’ DRM codes on copyrighted materials. This provision is highly relevant to whether or not John Q. Public can do anything to prevent the government from snooping on his emails or other net postings, as it attempts to suffocate publication of research work on truly secure cryptography. With the Patriot Act authorizing such snooping, and this act attempting to limit the average person’s access to technology that would prevent such snooping, effectively your entire on-line history becomes available to the government whenever they decide they want to look at it.

Now Americans are used to having a certain amount of privacy in their lives, and take it as a given that this is a right that is protected from government abuses. However, the Constitution itself does not enumerate this as a ‘right’, and can only be inferred from the 4th Amendment’s provision against unreasonable search and seizure. Unless our courts remain vigilant, this ‘right’ will disappear, all in the name of providing better security against a threat that has to date killed fewer Americans than lightning strikes. You may say that you have nothing to hide, and government monitoring won’t bother you, but think about just how much information about you might be derived just from from your net activities, and think about whether you really want Big Brother knowing all of it.

It’s time to really dismantle the Patriot Act, and not just by the mild reforms that were passed in 2006. In its place perhaps we need to pass a new Amendment to the Constitution, one that specifically enumerates the right to privacy and just when and under what justifications and oversights the government can invade it.

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