As citizens, we live at the bottom of a stack of government entities, each of which has the power to tax us, control our behavior by means of laws and regulations, prosecute us for failing to follow their laws and regulations, and fine and/or imprison us if we are convicted of failing to follow their laws and regulations. The city and/or county we live in is the lowest entity in the stack, the state is next, and the humongous federal government is at the top. These entities constitute our government. For brevity, I’ll refer to them as “Gov” in this essay.
Gov collects a lot of information about us. Technology growth allows them new ways to collect even more. Balanced against that is the so-called “right” to privacy. The definition of that “right” is continually changing, and the amount of information about ourselves that we as individuals can protect continually decreases.
I’d like to stake out my position on what “rights” to privacy I have, and acknowledge what “rights” Gov has to collect information about me. I consider myself conservative, but what I say here is only my opinion and doesn’t reflect any official stance of any party. This is a complicated subject, and I can only cover it partially.
Privacy, as I see it, has several areas: my identity, my health, my income and assets, my transactions, my communications, my movements, and my observance of laws and regulations as defined by Gov.
First, my identity: Gov has the right to know I exist: my name, Social Security Number, my contact information (address, email, telephone number, etc.), and whether or not I am a citizen. They also have the right to identify my spouse and dependents. They know my ethnicity, gender, and (probably) my political affiliation. Gov uses this information at all levels. I hate to say this, but if Gov decided to issue a National Identity Card, I would concede them the right to do so. Further, Gov could pass laws requiring all citizens to keep the contact information up to date, in effect, that all individuals be registered, and they could stipulate that failing to have up to date contact information on file is a prosecutable violation of law. As of now, they don’t. Gov can, and probably does, share contact information across multiple levels.
My health privacy is gone now, thanks to Obamacare. There will be a national health record for me, and for every other citizen, assuming I ever go to a health care provider. Gov does not have the right to share that information to anyone except me and medical providers. Any other use of the information should be illegal. We are dependent on the integrity of Gov to protect us from misuse of that information. You may ask, “how can you use “integrity” and “Gov” in the same sentence? Good question. The Obama administration has destroyed my faith in Gov integrity.
My income sources are fully known to Gov, after all, I have to report them on my income tax forms, at multiple levels. Gov freely shares such information at the state and federal level. Lower levels of Gov know my major assets, because they want to hit them with personal property and real estate taxes. Gov knows my investments, to an extent, because I must report interest income. More and more of us depend on assistance from Gov, and a lot of it is means tested, which means Gov needs to know my means. Of course, I can fail to report income or assets, but by doing so I risk prosecution.
In the area of assets, Gov is always free to photograph my tangible assets, such as my autos and real estate. They can drive by my home and take pictures. They can fly over my home in a helicopter and take pictures. They can even use drones to do so. They can climb a pole and look down into my yard. They can discover my RV isn’t resting on an approved surface. Some states are trying to restrict the use of drones, but this is a losing battle. I just hope Gov keeps such pictures confidential.
My transactions: buying and selling, are only partially available to Gov as of now. My bank must report any transactions which are $10,000.00 or over. Most if not all companies I deal with analyze my transactions with them to try to predict what merchandise I’m interested in. In a criminal investigation, Gov can go after them, but ordinarily, I don’t think they do as of now. Still, I don’t really have a right to protect them. Of course, big ticket item purchases and sales (cars, trucks, boats, airplanes, real estate) are reported to lower level Gov, in their titles, licenses, taxes, fees. if I’m on food assistance, even my assisted grocery purchases are reported to Gov.
The big uproar in the privacy department now is in the area of communications. NSA seems to be recording data on every call now, including my phone number, the number I called, and the duration of the conversation. I can’t do anything about that, and unless I’m a criminal, I don’t see the harm. The content of my calls or my emails shouldn’t be recorded or used against me without a warrant. Again, we’re dependent on the integrity of government to observe that. Of course, if I’m talking to someone outside the country, particularly to a middle eastern country, I can’t count on my conversations not being monitored. The same with my emails, tweets, etc. As for text sent via internet, these are known to be monitored for certain keywords, and may be captured and read by Gov if such words are present.
My movements are increasingly being captured by Gov. Traffic surveillance is all over the place, and they can recognize my license number. If I drive around, I can be tracked, if Gov chooses to do so. Private surveillance sees me going into stores. In criminal investigations, Gov can force private firms to turn such videos over to them.
Gov maintains my criminal record, including my traffic tickets. I don’t want that made public, but it often is. My best advice is, never do anything that can result in a conviction. Gov will always remember.
In summary, it’s hard to find any real privacy rights that are left to me, outside of the warrant protection of the content of my messages. I’m dependent on the integrity of Gov, if there is any, to keep information they collect about me confidential. Even now, under Obamacare provisions now going into effect, my medical information can be passed from Health and Human Services to the IRS and the Department of Homeland Security. Privacy isn’t slipping away, it’s already gone.