There is one phrase that has crept into the American vernacular that I wish I could banish from the hearts and minds of my countrymen: "If you're not guilty, then what have you got to hide?"
The phrase equates the desire for privacy with the presumption of guilt. It suggests that anyone who wants to keep government's prying eyes away is trying to get away with something evil or criminal.
Today, as we try to flush out the terrorists in our midst, that phrase lingers in the air, providing a ubiquitous justification for invading our privacy.
The antiterrorism legislation passed by the House and Senate greatly expands the ability of the FBI to enter our homes and search them secretly. It allows agents to tap any public pay phone if they think one day it might be used by a suspected terrorist. Who cares if innocent people have their homes searched or their conversations intercepted by the FBI? If they're not guilty . . .?
Of course, law enforcement has a point. If the government could know everything about each of us, no terrorist would ever again succeed in harming another innocent person. But would that Gattaca life be heaven or hell?
We have primed the pump with our easy slide into the computer-driven society. Out of convenience, we allow computers to gather information about our movements and choices. Who cares if our Prefered Customer Card tells Kash n' Karry about the 10 bottles of wine we buy every week or about the St. John's Wort and the sleeping pills? We saved $5.23. Who cares if our credit card company knows more about our interests than our parents? It's so efficient -- so much so that anyone paying cash is seen as a crook or a deviant. Cash is so bulky, untraceable and contra-modern; using it must mean you don't want to leave tracks. Just try paying cash for an airline ticket these days and see how fast it takes the FBI to be at your door.
Privacy is so suspicious.
We have gone from a nation of people whose motto was "Don't Tread on Me" to one where citizens don't mind so much being trod upon as long as it doesn't take much time -- as long as the sobriety check-point line isn't excessively long, as long as the security guard looking in our purse is quick about it. Any grumbling comes not from the intrusion but the inconvenience. In modern America, time is more valuable than privacy.
The government has taken this acquiescence as a cue to barge on in. In the name of uncovering criminal acts, we have each undergone a transition: from citizen to dossier.
In addition to the information collected on us by the Internal Revenue Service and the Census Bureau, your employer is required to report details about you to the government. The point is to keep track of illegal aliens and of deadbeat parents trying to skip out on child support -- even if you are neither.
To flush out medical fraud and make records easily accessible, the government has mandated that your medical records be converted into a standard electronic format and filed under your own unique number. And the government took away your financial privacy years ago, when the foes were mere drug dealers and tax cheats, not terrorists.
In 1970, Congress said that for the purposes of law enforcement and regulation, every federally insured bank could be forced to keep a record of every transaction of every customer. But it wasn't enough to use bankers as conduits for information; Congress went one step further and in 1992 made them spies. Today, any transaction a bank employee finds suspicious or outside a customer's normal account activity must be reported to federal authorities -- without the customer's permission or knowledge.
That's still not enough. Think of all those Swiss and Philippinos who conduct business outside our watchful eye. In response, the Senate, as part of the general antiterrorism bill, has passed a measure to give our government access to the financial business of every person and institution on earth. If the provision survives negotiations with the House, every international financial institution that wants to do business with U.S. banks would be forced to spy on their customers, too.
Maybe it would be a safer world if our government knew about the assets of everyone. For a time we might gain some insight into the terrorist operations and the rich Saudi businessmen who support them -- that is, until they completely bypass the banking system. But what about the 1984-like vulnerabilities that kind of knowledge engenders? Privacy is a necessary condition for independence and individuality. A watched people are a conforming people.
Also in the name of antiterrorism -- although it's hard to see quite how -- U.S. Rep. Michael Oxley, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Committee on Financial Services, proposed requiring credit card companies to monitor their customers' accounts for online gambling activity. The measure, which was withdrawn after considerable criticism, would have prevented credit card companies from paying online gambling charges or providing any other services to Internet gambling sites.
From using bankers as spies to using credit card company employees as nannies is not a big leap. It's just another example of the government protecting us, even if it's from ourselves. Besides, if you're not guilty, then what have you got to hide?
© Copyright 2001 St. Petersburg Times