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Privacy Under Attack? Most Americans Have Already Surrendered Theirs

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"We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend. And we honor those ideals by upholding them not when it's easy, but when it is hard." Barack Obama, Nobel Lecture, Dec. 10, 2009

Should anyone be surprised that the federal government has been engaged in massive and indiscriminate data gathering aimed at spying on the American people? If you actually believe that privacy is more than an antiquated slogan, try this exercise.

Imagine that you live in a country that has been overrun by an army of deputized government agents, your friends and co-workers blackmailed into becoming informants. Imagine an extrajudicial legal system in which all citizens are presumed guilty of complex administrative crimes and must prove themselves innocent upon command, with no rights against self-incrimination. Imagine dissidents thrown into prison for keeping their personal affairs private.

Imagine a society where schoolchildren are taught that comprehensive surveillance is the price we pay for a civilized society, and that it is right to mock, vilify, and question the loyalty of "extremists" who protest--especially those who use subterfuge to escape the government's information dragnet.

Imagine a place where you can't even earn a living if you don't submit to the constant gaze of the state. You can't buy or sell a house, open a bank account, get married, leave money to your children, sell stock, start a business, hire employees, or even die without reporting the details to the most intrusive government agency ever created. Failure to comply with mandatory reporting can lead to jail, and failure to report others when required to do so can implicate you as an accomplice.

It's not hard to imagine what it would be like to live in such a society--because we already do. Like the proverbial frog that is slowly boiled alive, we've gotten so used to it that we hardly notice.

Recognize America yet?

Ever since the 16th Amendment to the Constitution was passed, giving the federal government the power to collect income taxes, our country has been transformed into a surveillance state, each and every one of us surrounded by conscripted informants. And we have been trained to meekly submit. After all, how else can tax authorities ensure that everyone pays their fair share?

So why are we upset that our phone calls and emails are tracked, purportedly to protect us from terrorists (even though 10,000 times as many Americans were killed this past decade by preventable medical errors), while we are perfectly comfortable with the government prying into our paychecks, wallets, savings accounts, businesses, and personal finances? In fact, we often resent those who try to hide money from grasping Congressmen, constantly dreaming up new "urgent priorities" that needs funding.

We worry that our digital communications trail can be used to build a comprehensive map of our social relationships. Yet all of our financial relationships are already an open book to an agency that has repeatedly been used by both Democratic and Republican administrations to illegally harass political opponents. When commanded to appear for inspection, we are expected to spend thousands of dollars and produce hundreds of pages of documentation to prove that we've done nothing wrong. All of this is demanded by administrative fiat, without a court order or a judge ever getting involved.

If we can become accustomed to this level of intrusiveness, how hard will it be to get used to a government that collects every single bit of our digital communications for inspection and review? If we have learned to become comfortable that the IRS won't use our financial information for political purposes, how much harder will it be to give that same level of trust to the NSA, CIA, DHS, and FBI? If we expect cradle-to-grave support from the government, giving it power over our education, health care, and security, how can we let any citizen keep secrets that might hide failures to abide by all the rules and regulations?

For those who do object, our elected officials simply tell us that if we've got nothing to hide, we've got nothing to fear, and that if mistakes were made they will never happen again. Yes, we regularly vent our anger and hope for change. But when pressed to take action to uphold our ideals, we choose the easy way out and submit, to the current administration's delight.

This latest round of "scandals" will soon blow over. And when they do, the government will go back to doing what it does best -- growing without bound.