Saturday, August 3, 2013

Something, Somewhere, Needs Shooting

More than forty years ago, I had a cramped, overpriced, and ugly apartment on the Gulf Freeway in Houston.  That apartment had almost exactly the same layout as a motel room, and being located on the freeway, it was about as noisy—well, out the front door anyway.  The back side was much quieter—my balcony overlooked the largest cemetery in Houston.

To be fair, there were certain advantages to living next to a cemetery.  It was always quiet—very few loud parties were held there---and I always had fresh flowers for my dates.  At the start of every semester, after paying tuition and buying required textbooks, I was so broke that food became a luxury item.  I eventually shot—and ate—every duck from the cemetery pond.  Ornamental ducks do not taste very good, but hunger is the best sauce.

When I moved into those apartments, the chief attractions for me had been the location and the pool.  I had never lived anywhere with a pool, and could easily imagine myself studying next to the pool, swimming my way through freshman calculus.  I think I may have swum in that pool twice.  The only people who regularly enjoyed that pool were the Houston Police Department.  For traffic control purposes, the city had put a large CCTV camera on a pole next to the freeway.  Remotely operated, the camera could swivel and turn up and down the freeway looking for accidents and traffic jams.

Watching a freeway on a television monitor is probably pretty boring, so it probably isn’t all that surprising that the camera spent most of the time aimed at the pool, instead.  I didn’t mind—my desk was situated so that I could look out the window at that pool, myself.  What I did mind, however, was the number of times I watched the camera slowly panning back and forth, focusing on the apartment windows.  Watching the girls in a public pool was fair game, but playing Peeping Tom with bedroom windows was not!  One night during a noisy thunderstorm, the camera was destroyed when someone shot it with a load of duck shot.

That was forty years ago, when it was much easier to stop unwarranted government spying.  Today, I’m not certain exactly what—or who—needs shooting.

I don’t care how many supposed terrorist attacks have been subverted, my government does not have the right—morally or legally—to monitor what I do on my cell phone or on the internet.   Prove to me that monitoring my cell phone, specifically MY CELL PHONE, has stopped a single terrorist attack ….or stop violating my rights!

My rights under the Fourth Amendment guarantee “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures…”  What can be more unreasonable than the government seizing the data and searching databases on every single person in the country?

Nor am I very happy about my medical records.  The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) guarantees that my medical records are safe.  Giving those records to the Internal Revenue Service insures that they are not.  Why does the government have a right to seize and maintain my medical records?  Why do they want to turn over all of our records to an agency that has proven it can’t be trusted with a potato gun?

Starting in the fifteenth century, there was an English court of law known as the Star Chamber.  Meeting in secret, and often without the knowledge of the accused, this court exercised enormous power, eventually becoming a political weapon against the enemies of the crown.  Among the abuses was the ability of the prosecutors to present secret written evidence.  This is a fairly apt description of today's Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court that oversees the actions of the National Security Administration.

This is the court that has authorized the continual collection of all cell phone data, domestic and foreign.   To be sure, a warrant allowed this—not surprising when you learn that since 1979 the government has requested 33,949 such warrants.   To date, all but 11 were granted, and 4 of those were still partially granted.  (What in hell were the other 7?  Requests to strip-search dead nuns?)

The FISA court is usually a single judge, appointed by the government, to perform oversight on the government, for the government.  The court operates in secrecy, with no possible civilian scrutiny.  Each judge is appointed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and the appointment requires no confirmation or oversight by the Congress.  After the terrorist attacks on 9/11, the Patriot Act extended the powers of this court to allow domestic espionage on U.S. citizens. 

The abuses of the Star Chamber strongly influenced the writing of the 5th amendment.   I guess if we can trash the 4th amendment, it’s not much of a stretch to ignore the 5th.

A last note:  No matter what I write about, I get hate mail—that's fine since I usually correct the grammar and spelling and return the missive with a grade.  I can already predict the content of much of this week's mail: "If you have nothing to hide, why object to the search?"  Ignoring the fact that none of this charade is keeping me safe—or that I have no desire to trade freedom for safety—I know the correct response:

“If I have nothing to hide, why do you need to search me?”

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