Trust Us, We're The Government

The Obama administration’s defense of the NSA’s wholesale surveillance of, well, pretty much everyone is that the program is going to be kept in a box. The NSA is going to collect and warehouse the data and it will only be accessed under certain conditions (i.e. with authorization from the top-secret FISA court the rulings of which aren’t public). In other words, the message for the public is “trust us, we’ll protect your privacy” We’re supposed to believe that they’ll keep mountains of extremely private information about us and never, ever abuse it.

Can we believe them?

Perhaps there’s a lesson in this story from Minnesota where a news anchor is suing several government agencies because her data in the┬áMinnesota Department of Public Safety’s Driver and Vehicle Services database has been searched nearly 4,000 times:

The lawsuit, filed by Twin Cities Fox 9 Morning News anchor Alix Kendall, claims her license information was accessed more than 3,800 times during a 10-year period through the Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s Driver and Vehicle Services database.

One of Kendall’s attorneys, Jon Strauss of the Sapientia Law Group, speculated that many of the searches were the result of curiosity. At this point Strauss only knows what computers were used to access the information, not who was using the computer at the time.

“She was shocked and disgusted to learn she had been looked up more than 3,000 times,” Strauss said. “We believe this is the largest data breach in Minnesota history. Ironically, these people have been snooping into her life, but we can’t find out who they were until we start gathering discovery information.”

Information that can be obtained through the DVS system includes current and former addresses, current and former driver’s license photographs, weight, height and, possibly, Social Security and medical information, Strauss said. The filing also points out that Kendall’s information was searched by name, not by her license plate numbers. So the searches didn’t include police officers doing random traffic searches for stolen vehicles or people with arrest warrants.

The NSA database is far more sweeping than the Minnesota Driver and Vehicle Services database, but it’s the same concept. It’s private, sensitive data collected by the government, and we’re supposed to believe they’ll only access it in accordance with their own rules and that it will never, ever be abused.

Just like the IRS’s┬ámyriad bureaucrat powers have never been abused by Presidents, right?

This is why America’s founders preferred smaller, decentralized government. Such a system of government was far less likely to be used to abuse its citizens. Or, at least, that abuse would be compartmentalized.

The further we move from that principle, the larger and more centralized governance in America becomes, the more we’re open for abuse I’m afraid. Not that local government is necessarily innocent, either. Several police departments in the Fargo/Moorhead/Grand Forks area are testing and using license plate scanners that identify each vehicle license plate they pass and create a database which includes where each plate was seen and at what date and time.

In the aggregate these scanners create a database recording the movements of citizens, and supposedly the records are only kept for a certain amount of time before being destroyed. But are they, really? And what’s the potential for abuse?

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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