History has a way of repeating itself. Indulge me for a moment in this missive. I want to build a case for what I am about to pen.
Back in ancient times (the 1930’s), in Germany, an economic situation existed like what we are experiencing amid the current COVID-19 crisis. Their situation was the result of the Great Depression, brought on by the Wall Street market crash of 1929.
Unemployment was soaring (as high as 30 percent), inflation was ramping up, food was scarce, Germany’s industry was working at 50 percent of its capacity, and unemployment funds were mired in politics. And the German people were getting restless and looking for a change. On top of that, the general populous was unhappy with what they saw as a weak government run by a weak leader (Heinrich Brüning, a conservative German statesman who was chancellor and foreign minister at the time).
Such conditions set the stage for change. For Germany, it was the ideal time for a charismatic leader, a powerful and spellbinding speaker, to emerge. That leader was Adolph Hitler, who became the new Chancellor in 1933. While this, in and of itself, did not give him absolute power. It was the beginning and following were several dramatic events that brought him to full power. Eventually, he passed what was called the “Enabling Act, which made him the dictator of the country and allowed him to ignore the constitution and to give his decrees the power of law (sound familiar)?
And, as much as the world despised him, he was shrewd and capable individual, able to understand what was going on amongst the people and capitalize on it. He gained popularity by touring the country making promises of employment, prosperity, order and a return to “glory” (again, sound familiar)? Because he was such a riveting orator, his speeches were mesmerizing and easily swallowed by the general populous who followed him, regardless of what others were pointing out as false promises and undeliverable. (again, sound familiar)?
He implemented policies to bring prosperity back. Some of them included public works projects funded by deficit spending (another sound familiar), redistribution of wealth, and finding a scapegoat for the country’s ills (the Jewish population then, vs. the Democrats now). There was curtailing of civil rights (this government’s reticence to protecting privacy). Police powers were amped up to where searches and seizures were no long illegal, and arrest could be made without warrants (hopefully, that will never occur here). And, his primary goal was to rebuild the country’s military might (a goal of Trump’s, as well).
This does have some eerie overtones of the present administration. And, I do not want to drone on with comparisons. But the fervor with which this president issues executive orders that trample legislative directives and overturn bipartisan policies and our constitutional rights are raising the hairs on the back of my neck. His interpretation of emergency powers extends far beyond what they are intended to do. And, the endless means he is willing to go to under the guise of “making America great again” is frightening.
As well, Trump considers some of the more nefarious world leaders today (Russian Premier Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un) as friends, as did Hitler with his allies, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan.
Ok, so much for the history lesson. Of course, times are quite different today, as are circumstances and conditions. However, there are certainly some alarming similarities between the two leaders.
The motivation behind this missive is that I recently received a feed with information along the lines that the Republican Senate has voted to extend the powers of intelligence authorities to search browser history without a court warrant. It still has to wrangle its way through the rest of Congress but, that the Senate would authorize it in the first place is my point.
While this warrantless search authorization may seem like a small blow for citizen privacy, couple this with some of the other actions taken by this president, and his henchmen in the Senate, and some alarming trends are emerging.
The years have seen myriad legislation passed in the name of national security – most of it warranted, such as the Patriot Act. However, it was passed with a much kinder and gentler group of individuals in charge with a much better respect for individual rights. Something that this administration and the Senate seem to think is no longer necessary – shades of Chinese and Russian governments!
Drilling down a bit, the original warrantless powers were part of what was called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). That act expired a couple of months ago and was supplanted by the USA Freedom Reauthorization Act. It is a renewed effort by this administration to allow government spying capabilities on U.S. citizens, among other rights-eroding languages, and implement, what are looking like, more and more imperialist government actions (looks like the National Security Agency (NSA) is back in the homeland surveillance business). The unconstitutional surveillance program at issue is called PRISM, under which the NSA, FBI, and CIA gather and search through Americans’ international emails, internet calls, and chats without obtaining a warrant).
We should worry. There have been many attempts in the last couple of years to erode citizen privacy. For example, back in 2017, the Senate voted 50-48 to kill off consumer broadband privacy protections using the Congressional Review Act. There are others. This was just a handy example. However, the extremely slow progress of Congress to move on privacy legislation, which by all common sense is a long overdue no-brainer, is an overarching concern.
I do agree that authorities should not have to spend time trying to justify a warrant for every trivial, slightly suspicious pittance of data of which they become aware.
I disagreed with the position Apple took, and agreed with the position the government took, over the data stored in a suspected terrorist’s smartphone in 2015.
In this day and age, threats are everywhere, and we need to be able to vet them with speed and efficiency. Obtaining warrants for every little blip makes that difficult.
The qualifier that is necessary for this, however, is a degree of anonymity. That too should be a no-brainer. Data can be perused by authorities, but it needs to remain anonymous unless there is strong evidence that it is harmful. If suspicious data is encountered, and further investigation is warranted, it must first be vetted as valid. If there is then further reasonable suspicion, warrants must be obtained first. An exception would be if irrefutable evidence indicates an immediate threat and taking the time to obtain a warrant will increase the significance of the damage.
The rest of the data not deemed suspicious (which is the bulk of it) should be purged immediately and not housed in some obscure government vault beneath the North Pole. To me, that is a reasonable compromise. That protects individual privacy and still allows for a sensible measure of security.
However, what this administration and the Senate are up to frighten me. It is beyond the bounds of our democratic government’s acceptable behavior. It has slowly, and deliberately, worked on eroding privacy that we have worked so hard to insure. All I can hope for is that soon, cooler heads will be in charge and we can return to having respect for individual’s rights and privacy and find the modern age sweet spot between oligarchy and chaos.