If the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated, or undergo such incessant changes that no man, who knows what the law is today, can guess what it will be tomorrow. Law is defined to be a rule of action; but how can that be a rule, which is little known, and less fixed?
—James Madison, Federalist Papers 62
Nothing to hide? Your life is an open book, is it? Then you won’t mind sharing your credit card numbers and passwords. It’s routine; we’re just checking. You do trust us, don’t you? You wouldn’t trust a perfect stranger with such sensitive personal information, but you do trust your government, don’t you? All one million of us who have top security clearances. Everything that you say or do, everyone to whom you speak or write emails, or who has spoken to you and sent you email, has been recorded. We have your email address book and your telephone contact list, too. We’ve even scrubbed your smartphone apps for details like your “political alignment” and sexual orientation.
Let’s take a look at your emails for the last five years. We were wondering if you’ve sent an email to someone who sent an email to someone who is on a watch list. That might be fun to explore. Same thing with your Facebook and Twitter accounts. It will only take a few seconds.
Let’s look at your Web browsing history. Certain interests are linked to possibly dangerous activities—or such esoteric interests might be, let us say, socially undesirable; not good for public morality. You visited a few sites that were also frequented by people on the U.S. Treasury Department list of Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons and the U.S. Commerce Department Denied Persons or Entity List. That’s suspicious. You also searched for privacy software. Trying to hide something? Suspicious. We have special surveillance for people like you.
Your credit and debit card transactions reveal that you seem to have purchased weapons or items that could be used to make weapons. We are given to wonder about the underlying intent. Your face turned up in the FBI’s facial recognition database, the Next Generation Identification (NGI) project, scanned at a store believed to possibly be patronized by terrorism suspects.
That Mideastern restaurant you are so fond of frequenting—32 times in the last 63 weeks—is believed to be a money launderer for charitable front organizations whose true purpose is to fund terrorism. And you mostly pay cash when you dine there. Cash leaves no trail through the banking system, does it? Perhaps you are thrifty and you just like Mideastern food. Perhaps not.
It is true that private companies have some of this data, too. That’s why after performing a search for say, exercise equipment, ads for exercise equipment begin appearing on other Websites you browse that accept these ads. “Targeted content,” they call it. Maybe you find them a bit creepy. Even so, there are a few differences between private ads and State surveillance: we can send men with guns to your door to arrest you and imprison you. We can impoverish your family by seizing all of your assets. We can hold you indefinitely without charge or trial simply by claiming that you’re a terrorist. We have the power to destroy. Facebook can’t do that. Google can’t do that.
But don’t worry. We never make mistakes and target the wrong people. We don’t have to justify increasing our budgets. We serve the public; there are no egos involved. We aren’t interested in splashy news conferences to announce to a breathless media that we’ve caught another terrorist and kept the Homeland safe.
Still say you’ve done nothing wrong? The definition of what’s “wrong” can and does change. What is wrong will not be defined by you, but by us. What is right today may be wrong tomorrow. Priorities change. We have all your information readily accessible for evidence if we need it. The laws are so vague, so sweeping, so open to creative interpretation that you probably break a few laws every day and don’t even know it. But don’t worry. Your innocence will protect you, right?
We need to talk.
It’s for your own protection.