Privacy is a relatively new concept in human affairs. For most of our existence there was no such thing. Cave people huddled together, and up through the 19th century, with typically large families, space was shared. Everyone pretty much knew what everyone else was doing. The constitution makes no direct mention of privacy, and in fact it is a “right” invented by the Supreme Court by inference only a few decades ago. This is in keeping with sweeping increase in the rights of individuals across the board in modern times. Most people instinctively feel that privacy is a good thing, and something that ought to be protected, and recent federal incursions are indeed troubling.
If the security agencies of the government are keeping track of phone calls, in terms of their connections, (not their content, which still requires the approval of a federal judge) in order to snag terrorists, the question arises whether it is or is not a bad thing. People will generally allow the government wide latitude when it comes to safety and security, as long as the actions it takes are reasonable, and in keeping with a particular purpose. But then there is the RICO problem. RICO is a statute that was originally designed to target racketeering by gangsters, by catching them in a criminal conspiracy, which became a crime in and of itself. However, it has been used more broadly to attack other things. Congress frequently passes laws that are designed for one thing, that in the hands of the bureaucracy charged with carrying them out becomes something else. Thus, the question arises whether actions authorized to snare terrorists, can then be used to pursue something else, totally unrelated. For once the power is granted it can easily be abused.
We are seeing an extraordinary abuse of power by this administration, in one scandal after another, including attacks on the press and individuals and groups they disagree with. This did not have to happen, but since the administration chose to place left-wing ideologues in sensitive positions, it is unsurprising that these zealots would use all the tools at their disposal to get the “enemy.” These are people who see big government as good, and a powerful state as a force to achieve their objectives. But what we are learning is that if people can overreach, they will overreach. So the question arises whether the authority we have given the government to pursue terrorists, a perceived good, is offset by its potential or real application towards something totally unrelated, an evil. Thus, the authority to sift telephone information for terrorist activity could easily be applied to your political or financial activity.
It gets worse, because private institutions are also in on the game. The executives of Google and Yahoo, for example, are strong supporters of the administration, which indicates there is a seamless continuum of power, here involving the collection of information on anything you do online. Given all of this, at the present time privacy may be something of an illusion. But people have brought this on themselves by posting all sorts of personal information online, or talking (annoyingly) on a cell phone and spilling out more about their personal lives than anyone wants to know. Under the present circumstances the wise thing to do is assume that someone somewhere is watching what you do, or is able to track and retrieve that information if they want to.
But there is also the argument that in effect says “so what.” If you have nothing to hide, and are not up to no good, why should you care? This is one way to keep everyone honest. But this is predicated on the assumption that the government itself cannot do wrong. That is a dubious proposition in light of current events. Our Founders understood that human beings are fallible, and provided us with a constitution that limited the power of government, but over time this has gradually been eroded either by unconstrained bureaucrats, an unelected judiciary, a power hungry administration, or an inept congress that passes laws that are so broadly worded that bureaucrats or judges interpret them any way they want to.
What is to be done? Clearly congress has to be far more explicit in legislation so unaccountable individuals don’t get blanket authority to do what fancies them. It may not be possible to anticipate every instance of abuse, but recognizing its potential likelihood would help, as would assuming people may do bad as well as good. We must remain steadfast in our opposition to terrorism, but any extraordinary powers granted to government must be very narrowly focused, and explicitly restricted to the intended purpose. Otherwise we should seek to devolve power from the federal government, and limit what it can and cannot do, in keeping with our founding philosophy. For the only way to avoid the abuse of power is to limit the power of government.