When I was a kid growing up in the 80s we were often told how much better America was than the likes of East Germany or the Soviet Union. One of the reasons for this was that we, unlike them, didn’t have a secret police that spied on everything citizens did. The East Germany secret police, the Stasi, went so far as to attempt to shred all the documents it had in the last days of the regime. Germany is now piecing together those records that got shredded and allowing people to see what was collected about them. (along with the records that did not get shredded)
We were also told that things like McCarthyism, J. Edger Hoover’s FBI blackmailing and intimidating people, Watergate, and the like were aberrations and we had laws to protect us against abuses of our constitutional rights. There are always those in government who would abuse information and people to their own ends. So those laws, like the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), are designed to act as checks and balances and hopefully provide some protection against abuse. The types of protection provided by the ECPA are essential.
I’ve heard many people say, “Well, let them read my email. I’ve got nothing to hide!”. Really? You’ve never done anything that you didn’t wish to be publicly known? Many of us break small laws all the time, sometimes completely unaware of it. Or we do things that might look suspicious enough to get us on the ‘list’. A friend of mine recently claimed she had nothing to hide. However, she’s a dual citizen in both the US and Mexico and calls/visits Mexico frequently. If she were to tick off some petty NSA employee, they might be able to add her to the ‘list’ easily. Or it might accidentally happen. Even if you’ve done nothing wrong, the problem is the emotional and financial cost of defending yourself.
In 2009, Digital Anarchy got audited for our 2007 tax returns. Nothing strange, we just won the IRS Audit Lottery, no more, no less. However, our auditor came across a payment we made to a contractor and went apeshit, demanding all sorts of other documents. This took a great deal of my time to deal with, caused me a great deal of stress, and cost us a lot in accountant fees for finding and processing the information requested. In the end, it turns out we mis-filed a form and we were fined $900. That was it. The real cost was the $8000 in accounting and other costs we incurred, to say nothing of my time and stress. For a three person software company it was a big deal. So it goes if you somehow end up in the government’s crosshairs. As a Mexican national can you imagine the potential headaches my friend, who so cavalierly says “read my email!”, might have if she somehow ends up in those crosshairs?
The NSA is stomping all over the ECPA and the fourth amendment. The government, both the Bush and Obama administration, is using ‘terrorism’ as a way to encroach on your rights, just as Senator McCarthy and J. Edger Hoover used ‘communism’ to do the same. Has it gotten to the level of McCarthyism? Of course not. But that’s because we pushed back on Bush’s warrantless wiretapping. And we need to push back on the NSA collecting our phone records and reading our email.
We have a right to privacy. That is one of the things we’re celebrating today. It’s just a small part of the amazing document called the Constitution. It’s what makes me proud to be an American. We can not let those in power scare us with bogeymen like Communism, Terrorism, or whatever the threat du jour is. That there are threats in the world can’t be argued. How we respond to them can be. If we give up our constitutional rights how are we any better than those Communist states we used to decry?
What makes America great, and today worth celebrating, are the freedoms we have. They are freedoms worth protecting. Sometimes that means you need to stand up and make your voice heard. Sometimes that means sacrifice and more inconvenience than signing an online petition (or writing a blog post). Do not let anyone diminish your rights.