Under the Sun
Trust the government to respect your privacy?
AFTER two minutes and about 20,000 key entries into the cash register, the store clerk turned to me and asked, "Can I get your phone number?"
"Uh, no," I said.
"I need it to do the return," he said, patting the plastic bag containing a piece of clothing I decided I didn't want.
"No," I said, "Why do you need it?"
"It's on the form here," he said, clicking the nail of his baby finger insistently on his register screen.
The checkout counter was surrounded by customers. Besides the fact there was no real necessity for my phone number since the store already had my credit card number -- the portal to my retail life -- I wasn't inclined to blurt out the information for all within hearing distance.
But I relented, and recited a number. Giving him a hard time seemed ridiculous when I should have no reasonable expectation of privacy any more. After all, I'd signed up for the "membership" cards that airlines and retailers issue, trading information about my buying habits and preferences for 10 percent discounts and other "rewards." Most of this is harmless, I tell myself.
Not so when the government does the gathering.
Unless you live on Mars, you already know that for the last four to five years, the National Security Agency has been assembling information about who you call on your telephones, when and how often you dial up.
Though security officials and President Bush haven't confirmed news reports of this program, neither have they denied it. The phone companies that give over the data have issued crafty denials that belie their veracity.
In a more recent effort, the government has been trying to persuade Google, Microsoft and other Internet companies to disclose their customers' Web-browsing and e-mail activity and to keep records of what they search for and view for two years.
The service providers are resisting because they usually only save records for 30 to 90 days and preserving them longer would cost them an enormous amount of money.
The government first said it needed this done primarily to stem child pornography, a particularly repulsive trade that no decent business would object to stopping. Then government officials piled in terrorists, their all-purpose reason for setting aside privacy rights, to bolster their cause. Later, they conceded that they could probably use the information to search for regular, run-of-the-mill crooks, too.
The government says not to worry; it doesn't want to know what you looked at on Web sites, just which Web site. It won't store records themselves, but just wants them kept should it need them and would obtain warrants and subpoenas before snooping. Same with your e-mail. It doesn't want to know what you wrote, just who you send to and who sends stuff to you.
Trust us, the officials say. If you're not a bad guy, you should not be disturbed.
The problem is trust. For one thing, the government doesn't seem to be able to hang on to information it has, as evident when the personal data of 26.5 million veterans was stolen from a Department of Veterans Affairs employee last month. It was a failure of one person and a couple of bosses, officials said to tamp down concern, not widespread negligence. Well, it's all the more worrisome that a handful of derelict bureaucrats could cause so much trouble so easily.
Another issue is the judgment government can make about who's a bad guy, and if you remember the days of J. Edgar Hoover's surveillance and dossiers on people he didn't like and Richard Nixon's "enemies list," you know how that can turn out.
has been on the staff of the Star-Bulletin since 1976. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org