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By David Keene, from THE HILL (with permission)
July 11, 2001

Recent polls reflect growing public concern over an issue that neither party seems willing to tackle in anything approaching a serious way, though I suspect all that is lacking is a catalytic event to make a front-burner political issue.

The issue is privacy. Americans revel in the advantages of computers and the ability to find out just about anything "online," but they are growing more and more nervous by the day about the fact that their secrets might be as accessible to others as the information they seek is to them.

Banks and grocery stores are selling data that many of their customers don't realize is being sold. Commercial vendors and government agencies are developing citizen profiles that we are told will make what we want as consumers more easily obtainable and our lives more secure. Meanwhile, we receive e-mail spam messages urging us to utilize the services of private detectives to find out "everything" we might want to know about anyone who interests us, and computer hackers are invading our records and sometimes stealing our identities.

Liberals seem willing to criticize private and commercial concerns that are collecting and utilizing information that folks might like to keep private, but one wonders whether they are sincerely concerned or merely taking advantage of yet another way of bashing business interests that they don't like anyway.

One wonders because over the course of the last decade they have suggested giving unprecedented power to government to peruse private financial records, listen in on telephone conversations on a random basis and seriously erode the privacy of Americans without any real reason for doing so.

Thus, while the media and many politicians are exercised about the racial profiling the police use to stop motorists who they suspect may be doing something wrong, the Clinton administration proposed that banks and airlines profile their customers for federal authorities. Then-Vice President Al Gore even headed a commission that urged that when someone deemed suspicious tries to purchase an airline ticket, the government should have the immediate right to look into their banking and other records without a warrant.

Many of these proposals have come to naught, but others are being implemented in part or in whole. At one point, the government even asked the Congress to approve legislation that would allow the FBI to essentially wiretap neighborhoods to see if anything untoward might be going on.

Congress declined, but federal law enforcement authorities prohibited from collecting private data on citizens have been caught partnering with private concerns to get information on citizens that it would be difficult to procure directly.

Meanwhile, the IRS shares information on taxpayers with other agencies that couldn't get it a few years ago and the Social Security administration puts sensitive private information on the Web without safeguards that would prevent unauthorized third parties from gaining access to it.

The sum total of the assaults launched on individual rights and privacy during the Clinton years led the American Civil Liberties Union to brand the Clinton/Gore administration as the most hostile of any recent presidency to individual rights.

The problem, however, lies not just with liberals and Democrats. Many of the proposals that anyone even mildly interested in individual rights opposed were supported by conservatives and Republicans as well. They were sold as anti-crime measures or anti-terrorist strategies that won unthinking bipartisan support .

Now, House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) is at least urging Republicans and conservatives to stop and think about what is going on. In a recent speech, he urged conservatives to oppose further government assaults on privacy and recognize that while abuse by private concerns may be troubling, the major assaults on privacy are coming from the very government that our citizens expect to protect their individual rights.

Some have made fun of Armey's attacks on the spreading use of video surveillance to catch red-light runners, but he seems to sense something that others don't . the road to the Brave New World is one we are traveling. The cameras used to catch red-light runners today can be used for more serious surveillance tomorrow.

The sort of thing we can look forward to if we are not careful is about to be put into practice not far from here. Virginia Beach is hoping to use federal grant money to install facial recognition software in closed-circuit television surveillance cameras that will be trained on the city's beaches and public places to "help reduce crime by identifying potential troublemakers and criminals."

The trade-off: privacy and freedom for security. It is entirely possible that by scrutinizing every face in Virginia Beach, the authorities will make the city safer, but it will be a joyless safety as everyone who appears in public knows they are being watched by, dare we say it, Big Brother.

We are not so far down the road to trading freedom for security that the trend cannot be stopped or even reversed. The Supreme Court just a few weeks ago fired a warning shot across the bow of the state by limiting the use of new technology to invade people's homes, and Armey is trying to get conservatives to put privacy at the top of their agenda. A lot will depend on whether he succeeds.

David Keene, Chairman of the American Conservative Union, is a D.C.-based governmental affairs consultant.

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