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Commentary

Our Overwatched Society


     
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Politicians are promising legislation to protect our privacy from telemarketers. If past privacy acts are a guide, the result will be a government database of our telephone calls.

Daniel Webster warned us: "Good intention will always be pleaded for every assumption of power."

Centralized information is centralized power. Good intentions, such as locating "dead beat dads," controlling illegal immigration, early identification of at-risk students, providing better emergency medical treatment, and combating health-care fraud, welfare fraud, tax fraud, white-collar crime, and drug money laundering, having created five massive federal databases: medical financial education, labor and personal.

These databases are linked together by the individual''s Social Security number, which the law said could not be used for identification purposes, and provide the basis for a national identity card. The bureaucrats have in mind a card with "biometric identifiers," such as fingerprints and retinal scans, and embedded computer chips containing our detailed personal and medical histories.

These databases were created through legislation masquerading as "privacy" acts and involved massive deception of the public. The full story of the government''s surveillance of ordinary Americans can be found in "Watching You" by Charlotte Twight in the current issue of the Independent Review.

The public was told the purpose of the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act was to protect their insurance coverage in the even of a job change. In truth the legislation mandates a national electronic database of personal medical information with a "health identifier" for each individual.

The Bank Secrecy Act sounds like something that protects the confidentiality of our financial records. In actual fact, the legislation requires banks and credit card companies to maintain records for the federal government of each customer''s payments and deposits. Similar legislation requires recordkeeping for government access to private currency and foreign exchange transactions.

The 1994 Goals 2000 Act, the Improving America''s Schools Act and other deceptively titled legislation are intended to create detailed computerized records of each student''s educational performance, socioeconomic status, home life, learning disabilities and all other information deemed necessary by empowered authorities.

In the 1990s there has been a plethora of legislation aimed at creating a national database containing every American''s employment history. Good intentions -- without unpaid child support, keeping track of child abusers -- are routinely invoked in behalf of these acts. But the real aim is a national identity card and the requirement that every employer obtain the federal government''s permission for each new hire.

For a half-century a person''s Social Security number was only used to record the person''s history of payroll deductions in order to determine the person''s benefits upon retirement. No one needed a number until he was in the work force subject to the payroll tax.

In 1976 a tax reform act gave states free rein to require Social Security numbers for a variety of identification purposes. In 1986, children claimed as dependents on tax returns were required to have Social Security numbers. Today the policy is to issue Social Security numbers at birth as part of the birth-certificate registration process.

Laws and the Social Security Administration''s internal regulations require that the Social Security Administration furnish other government agencies the information in its files. This information "includes, but is not limited to, vital statistics; race, sex, or other physical characteristics; earnings information ...medical information, including psychological or psychiatric information...and information about marital and family relationships and other personal relationships."

Legislation allegedly for the purpose of curtailing government intrusion into our private lives achieves the opposite in fact. For example, the Financial Privacy Act expands the government''s access to our financial records to include every regulatory agency.

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act prevents potential employers from obtaining educational records without the person''s consent, but does not prevent federal and state governments from obtaining the information.

The various privacy acts do nothing to protect our privacy from government. But they do deny information to those who really need it. Parents, for example, cannot find out if teen-age daughters are sleeping around and having abortions, or if a missing son, daughter or spouse, whose luggage has arrived without them, is on the next plane.

Rep. Jim McDermott, Washington Democrat, says: "There is no privacy from government anymore." As religious fundamentalists would say, "The market of the beast is upon us."


Paul Craig Roberts is the John M. Olin fellow at the Institute for Political Economy, research fellow at the Independent Institute and senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.






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