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Thursday, August 1, 2013
It’s hard to pick up the paper (for those of us troglodytes who still pick up, as opposed to download, the paper) and not feel apprehensive about the status of personal liberty in our nation.
Now, I’m not an alarmist. I don’t feel oppressed by a totalitarian system; I don’t lie awake worrying about drones outside my window; and I pity the ennui of the bureaucrat that might be assigned to intercept my tedious phone conversations.
But recent developments are enough to merit concern about how far government agencies might go down the paths of intrusion, and how far we citizens might allow them to.
Last Sunday, three articles caught my attention relating to this question of personal privacy. First, the American Civil Liberties Union had issued a report criticizing the practice of police using “license plate readers.” These devices scan and analyze passing cars to report any tags that might be stolen, belong to a wanted criminal, be involved in an abduction case, etc.
Well and good, but that same technology can easily be used to track your movements, making a report if you skip school, attend church, drive near your ex-wife’s, or go to a meeting of the ACLU. Such technology is not being used for such purposes right now. But can you say it will never be? Restrictions now on government use would seem in order. Some are, indeed, in place — but enough?
Another article involved violations of procedures by Virginia’s Alcoholic Beverage Control officers. The recent case in Charlottesville of an innocent college student arrested for being scared by plainclothes officers highlighted some other systemic problems with that agency, including snooping into confidential records. It appears ABC is in need of a procedural overhaul; not so the guilty get off the hook, but so the innocent are left alone.
The third article involved a resolution by Roanoke County Supervisor Ed Elswick to define property rights as the county’s highest priority in zoning issues. The resolution garnered little support, largely because (in my reading, anyway) it’s redundant to existing procedures and expectations, and is rather artlessly phrased so as to create confusion. I doubt Elswick’s resolution will, or needs to, pass.
But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a legitimate point along the way. The right to property is a fundamental freedom, and it’s frequently threatened. We conservatives often get exercised about the federal government, but this sort of threat occurs more on the local level. Zoning rules, eminent domain abuse, even neighborhood covenants or homeowner association rules limit what we can do with what we own.
None of these stories touches bigger threats to privacy, such as National Security Agency surveillance of phone records. Again, the threats are more potential than real. But isn’t that the time to deal with them? Waiting too long would be — well, too long.
Our nation has two birth certificates: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Both express a radical, world-changing idea: that government can and should be limited; that we the people can tell our rulers what they may or may not do. Our founders never envisioned license plates, much less scanners to read them digitally. So it is up to us to place limits on such intrusions, not because we want to run the occasional red light, but because we don’t want such surveillance being used inappropriately. A certain level of mistrust in government should be part of our national DNA.
One response to all this is to shrug and say “let ’em look and listen. They’re only after the bad guys, not me.” But that line of reasoning works only as long as they don’t define something you’re doing — eating bacon, going to an unapproved meeting, visiting a website someone finds subversive — as wrong. Then, where is the privacy for the good guys?
By that point, the mechanisms that would draw clear distinctions between bad guys and the rest of us may be too far eroded to protect us. We can’t un-invent intrusive technology. So it’s time for a serious national conversation about how much we the people want Big Brother to snoop. Our kids may not be allowed to ask such questions if we don’t.
Long is a Roanoke Times columnistand director of the Salem Museum.
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