Red Scare

Dallas County is setting up a surveillance system a Commie would love

Much of the thinking about smart cards seems to be aimed at universalizing them less through mandatory requirements than through incentives. The federal government is exploring the use of smart cards for "safe travelers"--people who agree to be checked out in advance, once and for all, and who then will be able to step around long security lines by presenting their smart cards. Retailers are beginning to offer smart cards as "loyalty cards"--frequent shopper cards--with some sort of discount attached.

It is by no means inconceivable that the county, under Schlumberger's tutelage, would require or encourage people seeking access to its computer systems to carry smart cards. And there is a hitch to which I as a reporter happen to be especially sensitive. I was a reporter before PCs existed.

In the days when records were kept in great big hand-logged ledger books, I don't think I ever entered a single South Texas or rural Michigan courthouse and asked to see a public record without getting grilled.

"Well, who are you? Are you a lawyer? Do you have some ID? Why do you want to see our records? Whose records in particular are you looking for?"

And, of course, I had a right--not as a reporter but as an American citizen--to see public records, my records, records I owned as a citizen, without telling anybody who I was or what I was doing. That was often the point: Two-thirds of getting the goods is in the sneaking up.

You allow somebody to put a smart card between you and the records, those days are over. Count on it. Start checking on a legislator's voting record, and his staff will know who you are and which terminal you're on.

Some people don't care that President Bush's guru in charge of anti-terrorist data mining, John Poindexter, was convicted in 1990 of lying to Congress on behalf of a terrorist state in Iran. I guess this is the "nobody's perfect" theory of civil virtue. But in recent months civil libertarians from all points of the political spectrum have been pointing out that the people attracted to data mining too often are typified by the dark figure of Poindexter, a man who never saw a secret he didn't want to keep. Or use.

Nat Hentoff of the Village Voicehas been especially eloquent in arguing that anxiety over terrorism has coupled with an explosion of technical capacity to threaten American liberties as never before. American cities from the liberal Northwest to arch-conservative Arizona have been forming "Bill of Rights Defense Committees" to resist federal encroachments on constitutional rights in the wake of 9/11. As many as two dozen cities have passed resolutions directing local officials to question or closely examine federal information-gathering techniques before cooperating.

Hentoff not included, most of us in the press probably harp too hard on our own right to know while harboring an unattractive disdain for everybody else's right not to be known. Somewhere at the far extreme is the ugly idea that there is no such thing as true or ultimate privacy. Whether it's President Clinton's sex life or Martha Stewart's diary, the notion is that someone, acting on some theory, has a right to scour any or every individual clean of privacy.

It almost doesn't matter where that idea resides--in the media, in government, in banks, in organized religion, who cares? The idea itself is fundamentally totalitarian and inimical to the American way. Privacy is liberty. The ability to scrape people bare of their privacy is exactly what Joe Stalin wanted all along. Scrape them or kill them, whichever comes first.

County government here is not signing away its trust as custodian of our records because people in county government want to see us stripped of our liberty. They're doing it because: 1. They haven't thought it through; 2. They're typical people older than 25 who have way too much faith in computers; and 3. You and I have not told them that we care deeply about our privacy.

But if it were ever going to come, if Big Brother were ever going to slip the hood over America's head, it would arrive not as a plot but as a big lazy puddling accident. Either way, the hood is dark.

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