It has become a commonplace joke on the phone that the NSA is probably listening in. The humor is a bit forced because it hides a fear. We know that rash talk, the unconsidered remark, can get celebrities into trouble and maybe cost them a job. But now less well-known citizens also may have to worry that the increasingly ubiquitous cameras and recording devices that are there to assure greater public safety may turn out to endanger personal privacy. The NSA controversy continues to contribute to a sense that privacy is dead. That personal speech is un-free. That Big Brother is watching.
Conservatives especially are worried because liberals are in power. But any liberal with a grounding in history, or an imagination, should also know that what starts as a justifiable use of authority can become a form of tyranny.
Current surveillance by the NSA is probably no threat to the rest of us; just the opposite, it protects us. California Sen. Diane Feinstein assures us of this, as does her colleague from Arizona John McCain. But their assurances come in the face of serious erosions in personal privacy and freedom by other powerful agencies of government that are all around us, from the IRS and FBI, to the EPA and FCC. The departments of Health and Human Services (hello, Obamacare) and Homeland Security also seem to feel that serving the public entitles them to micro-manage individual lives. No apologies. Everyone seems to want the right to snoop on you, guide you, curb you, punish you, make a lesson of you.
The DOJ seems to have the right to rummage through many, not just a few reporters’, calls and emails. The IRS has yet to interview any of the Tea Party officials targeted for special and delayed scrutiny, and has yet to explain the leaks of taxpayer information to political foes, an obvious felony. Some controversialists say they are audited every year, which looks a lot like harassment. Rep. Jim McDermott suggested somewhat drolly that Tea Party officials were only whining when they complained that conservative groups had been singled out for special treatment. All you have to do to put this in serious perspective, Congressman, is to place the shoe on the other foot.
But most worrisome may be the new CFPB, the harmless sounding Consumer Finance Protection Bureau that was created when Democrats took over Washington in 2009 and enacted the Dodd-Frank Act.
Records obtained by the conservative legal advocacy group Judicial Watch show that the CFPB has the power to get anyone’s financial information and share it with any government agency. This is a rare, maybe unique power. It also seems to be unchecked.
No problem? Well the CFPB, which almost uniquely is unaccountable to Congress or the President for its funding, already has spent millions of dollars demanding and obtaining financial data on private citizens. No warrants needed. What if you are one of those citizens?
Compare this kind of broad power in the use of personal data with the kinds of controls set up by earlier generations. For example, the Census Bureau cannot and does not disaggregate data. That means, someone in the White House or the Census Director’s office cannot call up your Census form to learn more about you as an individual. Not so with the CFPB.
Also by law and custom the Census Bureau cannot share disaggregated data with other agencies (e.g., the IRS). This protection not only was agreed to by the Census Bureau long ago, but was sought by the agency to protect public trust.
Again, not so with the CFPB. Elizabeth Warren & Co., when pushing the legislation to create the CFPB, wanted vast authority, and Congress under then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, gave it to them. The excuse was the financial crisis of 2008, and nobody apparently was reading the legislation very carefully. But the consequences are lasting and
If you believe that power like this will not be abused, well, you may need more experience in life. Chances are, many people are going to get it. Meanwhile, libertarians on both ends of the political spectrum should be alert to what’s happening. Today, the Tea Party, tomorrow Occupy? The next day, you?
Bruce Chapman, Founding Fellow and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute, was U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Organizations in Vienna during the Reagan Administration.