They’re creepy and they’re kooky

Published 11:00 pm Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The last couple of weeks have been downright creepy ones for anyone who values privacy and Constitutional protections. First, there was the news out related to the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of certain groups and delaying of 501c(3) and 501c(4) applications if applicants used terms like patriot, tea party, and limited government in their application materials Some of the applications for non-profit, tax exempt status were delayed – quite deliberately – well past the 2012 election, and the unequal treatment of conservative groups by the IRS raises serious questions about the status of the “rule of law” in America, where all individuals are, ideally, treated equally under the law.

Around the same time, there was news out showing that the Justice Department had secretly seized telephone records of Associated Press reporters and a Fox News reporter. The Obama administration justified the move as part of a major crackdown on national security leaks, but that sure becomes an elastic rationale for government oversight of activities that are protected by the First Amendment!

In a story that hasn’t received as much attention as it should, the Supreme Court ruled last Monday that “the government has a legitimate interest in collecting DNA from arrestees.” In a 5-4 ruling, the court ruled that taking DNA samples from arrestees is a straightforward extension of taking photographs and fingerprints. But, as Justice Scalia said in his dissenting opinion, “Make no mistake about it: As an entirely predictable consequence of today’s decision, your DNA can be taken and entered into a national DNA database if you are ever arrested, rightly or wrongly, and for whatever reason … I doubt that the proud men who wrote the charter of our liberties would have been so eager to open their mouths for royal inspection.”

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Much closer to home, motorists near Pell City and Talladega were stopped – against their will – by roadblocks and asked to give DNA samples to authorities this past weekend. The roadblock was part of a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study, and the people were paid cash if they participated, but those not wanting to be bothered by a roadblock and long delays weren’t given much of a choice. (And, is anyone else wondering what in the world the NHTSA is doing with DNA samples?!)

And, then, of course, we learned over the weekend that the National Security Agency has been collecting most of our telephone records and Internet traffic history since 2007. The program, which was initially developed by George W. Bush, has been ramped up under Obama to assure that almost all phone records and Internet traffic is collected and stored as part of a broad “meta-data” initiative. The problems with these intrusions are immense, and Edward Snowden, who is responsible for leaking the NSA story, made them clear in a recent interview when he noted that, as someone working on the project, he could have looked at anyone’s records – even President Obama’s.

Any agency with the power to gather protected, private data has the power to do more than just gather it. Over time, the temptation will be strong to use it for purposes far beyond what it was intended to be used for. In the case of DNA sampling, for example, I can imagine a future where DNA is used to hunt down criminals, rather than as a way to rule out certain people as perpetrators – the difference in the way DNA is used is huge. Similar scary scenarios can be imagined when we turn over information to agencies like the NSA – the step from having the information stored to using the information to drive an agenda, such as the agenda the IRS was driving (or worse), is a small one.

The sad thing about all of these recent intrusions is that a majority of Americans (and probably many of my readers) find them acceptable. What people seem to miss in their yearning to be safe is that bit by bit each of these invasions leaves us a little bit less free. Bit by bit, each intrusion weakens our Constitution a bit more and leaves us with an outcome where the “rule of law” and certain inalienable rights, which include rights to privacy, are abandoned for the sake of the “rule of men” – President Obama now and someone after him who will carry on the tradition of placing government power and control above all other values.


Scott Beaulier is Chair of the Economics and Finance Division and Director of the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University. Email Scott at Follow the Johnson Center on Facebook and Twitter (@Johnson_Center)