How the candidates would mindlessly trash your privacy

privacy please
Photo: Josh Hallett via Flickr

Last night’s CNN Debate was about how the Republican candidates are “tougher” than Democrats. But look close. Tougher always means violating somebody’s rights, including yours.

While the debate moderators asked about the mass collection of phone records, they glossed right over the implicit privacy violations in many of the candidates’ proposal. Only one candidate — Rand Paul — mentioned how we’re about to run roughshod over the First Amendment.

While desperate times call for tough measures, those tough measures always mean violating rights in the name of security. Our candidates — and Barack Obama, too — say they are protecting us from evil. Who exactly is “evil”? Certainly not the generous, moral, intelligent readers of this blog. But with these policies, we are all suspects. For example:

  • Donald Trump’s wants to block Muslims from entering the U.S., but why is your religion the government’s business? How do you check someone’s religion? It’s not like all the Muslims have hand-stamps. Trump says we should just ask all non-citizens entering the country, which will allow us to block the really dangerous terrorists — the truthful ones. But while asking religion at the border won’t be effective, it will set a precedent. Will we have a database of every entrant’s religion? That would make it a lot easier for President Cruz or President Huckabee to pass legislation barring atheists from entry. And how will other countries respond? When you travel to Dubai, can they ask if you’re a Jew and then deny you entry? Your religion is your business, not the government’s.
  • Barack Obama would use the “no-fly” list to block gun purchases — but who’s on that list? I’m for anything that stops the spreads of guns, but I’m not crazy about secret lists. There are now 400,000 people on federal terrorist screening lists. There are lots of mistakes on that list — Ted Kennedy and Cat Stevens (now known as Yusuf Islam) ended up on it — and there’s no useful procedure to correct them. So this proposal would block people from buying guns based on a secret government list you can’t get off of.
  • Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz would only allow Christian refugees — but are we a Christian nation? A religious test is far from foolproof. What if the person seeking asylum is a Jew? A Shi’ite Muslim? A former Muslim who now has no religion? These are all groups persecuted by ISIS, and the Bush and Cruz policies would disqualify all of them. More importantly, our test for who gets asylum has always been based on a credible fear of persecution. Once we start admitting or blocking people based on religion, we’re creating a country where one religion is preferred. That’s not the country I thought I was part of.
  • Trump wants to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants — but how will we find them? Will we send people door-to-door looking for documents? Or perhaps we’ll just require people to show their documents for every contract, financial transaction, lease, and purchase at the corner bodega. Actually, it would be a lot easier if we just issued an identity card to every citizen and legal resident, and if you got caught without your card we’d put you on the next bus to Mexico and drop you off with ten bucks at the border. My friend adopted a Guatemalan baby who is now a teenager — let’s hope he doesn’t forget his identity card when he goes to the library, or she might never see him again.
  • Trump also wants to “close the Internet to ISIS” — but what effect would that have on your Internet traffic? Since there’s no way to identify an “ISIS packet” on the Internet, we’ll just have to identify which traffic is probably terrorist-related by checking lots of emails and files. Don’t worry, we can get Google and Facebook and Dropbox to help with this. Just be careful you don’t “like” a post that originally came from a Syrian or somebody with an Arabic-sounding name. (Meanwhile, the actual evil people will learn to use VPNs and encryption to hide what they’re doing and where it’s coming from.) I don’t know about you, but I’m not crazy about giving the government license to inspect every character and pixel I post, send, or share.

I’ve exaggerated these cases to make a point. Reasonable people will push back on these proposals, and suggest policies with some sorts of protections in them. But please, pay close attention when politicians suggest policies to keep you safe from evil. They’re likely to be secret, unmonitored violations of your rights and intrusions into your privacy (ask Edward Snowden). And as for you personally, since you’re not evil, you’ll be exempt, unless somebody makes a mistake or changes a policy that catches you up next time around.

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  1. The only thing I can see to disagree with is the first sentence in the last paragraph. I don’t think you’ve exaggerated at all.