At Risk

“They that can give up essential liberty
to obtain a little temporary safety
deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

Benjamin Franklin

Our freedoms are slipping through our fingers like sand through the hands of a two-year-old. And we're going to have to explane to our children and their children how we let it happen and while they'll have to risk their lives one day to get them back again. I have included a recent article I wrote that is the basis for my upcoming book At Risk.

At Risk — Your Privacy
By Sally Richards

No longer do we have to wonder when precisely in the future the Big Brother scenario will play itself out. Here it is — we are all trapped in a web of ever-watching monitoring devices. The funny thing? They’re all devices we’ve chosen by company, brand and value-add features. The thing we weren’t counting on? That the information being collected about the use of those devices and services that are readily available to the US government without so much as a warrant. Just as Hal turned on the crew of the spaceship Discovery, so have our nomadic and stationary technology devices turned against us. In some cases, even our library cards are snitches for the Feds.

Remember the good ol’ days when an agency had to go before a judge to get a warrant and then proceed to gather evidence against you? Well, those days are no more. What we’re looking at now is a completely different animal than two decades ago, but also one of the same stripe of the late 1700s. Encryption, now a science in great demand by the Feds and their foes, was alive and kicking back in 1785 when Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe were led to write their correspondence in code because of a complaint made by George Washington against mail tampering by the post office of their day. That’s when a resolution giving authority to the secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs to openly snoop and censor was put into place.

What’s that saying — the more things change, the more they stay the same? Well, in this major information backlash caused primarily by 9/11, the Feds have come home to roost — in your telephone lines, in your pipeline feeding you cable, and even in your Safeway card. How is this possible? It’s been a slippery slope since the rationale, as given in A Report to the President of the United States (Sept. 16, 1999): where it’s stated that American history has been punctuated by periods in which the US government had to respond to sweeping social, economic and technological developments. The report addresses technology as a new tool, and states that technology raises new issues to which it must respond in new ways. New ways that wouldn’t have been tolerated in the old days.

Many of you probably feel you have nothing to hide anyway. Again, it’s a slippery slope. Currently there are cases being heard where information was gathered by means of no warrants for non-terrorist cases. This means, in the future of tomorrow’s Amerika, that if precedents for privacy aren’t set now that people, not the government, will be able to use this information for marketing, to take you to court on a civil matter where they’ve twisted that information around to get a skewed look at your life — there are cases currently being heard around the country regarding why this information needs to have a warrant involved. Many cases are currently being tried where this information was obtained in this way by police agencies on non-terrorist matters.

What if you don’t like the way things are going? Expect that if you raise your voice against government policies you’ll get yourself on a list. Writing from my own experience in speaking out on the subject of civil liberties and technology and government infringement on both, I’ve become a member of the red security bucket club — every time I fly I receive one of those dreaded checkered strips on the bottom of my flight pass that identifies me as an enemy of the government to be watched. Then I am escorted to the front of the security line and given a red tub to place my belongings in for a hand and chemical search.

Since the Patriot Act, Patriot Act II, Green Lantern, CAPPS, CAPPS II, etc., have given the Feds the power to do just about anything from locating your whereabouts via your cell phone, or your GPS system, tapping your cell phone, your home phone and even watching your cable to see what you’re watching. How is all this possible in a democracy where we have implied privacy — that’s a big term that’s being used these days. The government claims that nothing about privacy is implied anymore, so you can just stop leaning on that term for your protection.

Our Founding Fathers’ need to encrypt correspondence they sent to each other is ironic. Soon thereafter the Continental Congress charged that some mail was too dangerous to allow circulation by the postal system. Predictably enough, one of the first types of mail to become de facto unmailable was Anti-Federalist letters and periodicals. Many of the heated debates during the ratifying of the Constitution were brought on by the Anti-Federalists who simply would not agree to a Constitution unless it had a Bill of Rights. Thus, they could not circulate materials through the Federalist-controlled postal system.

Later, during the Civil War, it wasn’t all that much of a surprise when the governments of both the North and South censored materials they thought to be seditious. Our recent history is rich with eras such as the McCarthy period when mail was both censored and read wholesale by the Feds and with purely political postal restrictions such as the 1962 Cunningham Amendment that restricted the circulation of communist literature that originated in a foreign country. And our own words were used against us by a system specifically created to guarantee Americans a free flow of political opinion. Today, once again, our mail can be lifted out of the sorter and read without any permission at all by government officials who may have a need to read it.

Let it never be said that the Feds do not acknowledge the political importance of controlling the flow of information. The DOJ is now using its anti-terrorism powers bestowed on it to see what information is going out of your home and office via packets traveling over the pipeline going into your building — otherwise known as cable.

“We would not have been able to do (this) under prior law without a specific court order,” says Michael Chertoff, assistant attorney general in the criminal division of the Justice Department. Previously, federal law stated that: a cable operator shall not disclose personally identifiable information concerning any subscriber. Now Section 211 of the Patriot Act"> changes that very same law to now state: A cable operator may disclose such information if the disclosure is ... to a government entity.

The Patriot Act also spells out that just about any arm of the Fed or local authorities may obtain your Internet Protocol address">

Ironically help has come from a source who has practically become persona non grata with technologists who understand the underlying complexities of where the government is going in its mission to know everything about you including what toilet paper you wipe your ass with (via the Safeway cards it recently used to see what Safeway members were buying hummus after 9/11). Riding in on his somewhat tainted white steed is Senator Pat Leahy"> who now openly admits he did not really know what he was doing when he and Al Gore introduced the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in 1998 — one of the most detrimental pieces of legislation to the creators of technology ever devised — and one the government is now using to prosecute professors at universities doing research. Senate Judiciary Chairman Leahy called a hearing to scrutinize some of the current administration's recent actions that are raising red flags in just about every camp. This is still in the works; perhaps his new vows to turn his wrongs into rights will have some impact.

As a matter of fact, speaking of democracy…did you know that some states are offering up your private voter information for grabs to political candidates, nonprofit groups and data collectors who then combine it with your census data, purchasing history, credit reports and subscription lists to hone their target market. Although some states limit their sales of your information to only political groups, 22 states lack any guidelines at all. The last time I refused to talk to a census taker she literally stood at my door and showed me her cell phone and said she’d call the police if I didn’t answer her questions — “It’s against the law not to talk to me.” I reminded her that we also have the right to bare arms and to remove her pointed little shoe from blocking the closure of my door. I also reminded her that although she was only concerned about getting the information she needed to fill out the form so she could get paid — that this was the information that the state government dipped into to round-up the Japanese in California and put them into internment camps during WWII. She looked at me blankly like a deer caught in the headlights. This kind of mentality is indicative of the people collecting the data for the sacrifice of your privacy. They don’t have a clue, but now you do and it’s up to you what to do about it. When it all comes down to it, we will have to explain to our children and our children’s children why we did not raise a finger to stop our civil liberties from being flushed down the toilet — those same civil liberties many before us have died in the streets of this country to put into place.

What will eventually happen will be the complete proliferation of your private information where any policing agency will be able to obtain from your electronic footprints where you shop, your buying habits, where you spend your leisure time — and with whom. They will be able to track via systems now being pushed into the car manufacturing industries by the insurance industry a device that will let them know how fast you’re driving and log in where ever you go. Already your information is on board an open shuttle between the airlines and the DOJ. The information that you’re graded on and ranked for free egress and ingress — one of those things allowed in the Constitution without having to show your ID between states, contains your marriage status, if you have children, if you own property, your credit rating, your history with police and the Feds, your job status…and the list goes on. They can tell what you’ve been watching on TV and what you’re listening to on the radio. And when the electronic tracking system now being implemented in the euro hits the US — not only will they be able to tell where you spend your cash, but will probably allow that information to be tracked by stores that can count the money in your pocket and the credit on your cards as you walk into their doors. Get used to being completely naked as your information in up for grabs by anyone and everyone.

For more information regarding your privacy (or lack thereof) and what kind of a future you can look forward to, see the following URLs:

“It behooves every man who values liberty of conscience for himself, to resist invasions of it in the case of others.”

—Thomas Jefferson

Sally Richards is an author, technologist and civil rights advocate for humans and the technology they create and use. She can be reached at