Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

Even Argentina’s Good Policies Undermine Its Rule of Law

Much as I hate to rain on my colleague Juan Carlos Hidalgo’s understandable happiness at the decriminalization of personal consumption/possession of small amounts of drugs, this doesn’t exactly represent a ray of hope in Argentina’s otherwise gloomy policy mix.  Not because I believe in the War on Drugs – I can’t imagine anybody at Cato does – but because it was a court that reached this decision instead of a policymaking body.

Imagine the outcry if the U.S. Supreme Court simply decreed a policy it didn’t like to be unconstitutional – I know, with Justices Stevens and Kennedy at the apogee of their powers, it’s not a far stretch.  Better yet, recall the poison the Court injected into our legal and political systems when it short-circuited the political process by inventing a right to abortion in Roe v. Wade (again, I’m not saying anything about the underlying policy arguments).

So it is here: Instead of having the Argentine Congress change the law, the nation’s Supreme Court (by a vote of 4-3) simply decreed that criminalizing drug use is unconstitutional.  Reports are still sketchy, but this sounds like precisely the kind of judicial fiat developing (or any) countries need to avoid if they want to strengthen the rule of law.

NCSL Calls for Repeal of REAL ID

The National Conference of State Legislatures wants the REAL ID Act gone. It supports S. 717, the Identification Security Enhancement Act of 2007, which would repeal the REAL ID Act and reinstitute a negotiated rulemaking process on identity security that was established in the 9/11-Commission-inspired Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act.

It’s not a foregone conclusion that an organization like this would reject a behemoth of a project like building a national ID and surveillance system. The NCSL isn’t a small-government organization, and it could just as well have lobbied for billions of dollars in funding.

Money Meddling

Are you an entrepreneur who deposits a regular amount of your business revenues in the bank? Watch out, the government might come after you for illegal “structuring.”

Are you a high earner who regularly pulls out a substantial amount of cash from your bank account? Watch out, your bank could be sending ”suspicious activity reports” about you to the government, as former senator Bob Dole’s bank did.

Have you ever deposited or withdrawn more than $10,000 from your bank? Watch out, because your activities were recorded on a government database of “currency transaction reports,” which is growing by 16 million new reports each year.

Did you overstate your income on a loan form when you bought your house? Watch out, the government could nail you for both ”bank fraud” and “money laundering.”

Forbes focuses on government encroachments on our civil liberties in a series of articles this month. See here, here and here

As a tax wonk, the IRS angle in these articles caught my eye. But like many people, I find it very disturbing that continual expansions in federal power are shrinking the realm of privacy and individual automony in modern society.  

Campaign Finance Reform Meets Kurt Vonnegut

This morning, as Pennsylvania Democrats went to the polls in the last large primary before their nominating convention, the Supreme Court heard the latest challenge to the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law: Davis v. FEC, in which Cato filed an amicus brief, questions the “Millionaires’ Amendment,” which attempts to discourage candidates for election to Congress from spending more than $350,000 from their own personal funds. It penalizes campaign spending above that threshold by enhacing the political speech of the self-financing candidate’s opponent through increased contribution limits and unlimited coordinated party expenditures. This penalty unconstitutionally chills candidates from engaging in protected political speech beyond that personal funds ceiling, and does so without serving any governmental interest that the Supreme Court has recognized. The penalty doesn’t even prevent the “corruption” that was the rationale for McCain-Feingold, because there is no threat of quid pro quo from a candidates’s expenditure of her own funds. And the Court has expressly rejected “leveling the playing field” of financial resources as an interest sufficient to justofy the infringement of First Amendment rights. Ultimately, the “Millionaires’ Amendment” is nothing more than an incumbency protection mechanism designed by Congress for its own benefit.

Based on this morning’s argument, I think the Court will issue a narrow decision striking down the Millionaires’ Amendment based on the disclosure burden, with separate concurrences on broader First Amendment grounds. The most interesting questioning, not unexpectedly, came from Justice Scalia, who, evoked the reductio ad absurdum of the “leveling” provision (which reminded me of the old Vonnegut story about equality run amock, Harrison Bergeron): “What if one candidate is more eloquent than the other one? You make him talk with pebbles in his mouth?”

Note: John Samples and I visited Capitol Hill yesterday to give a public briefing on the law and policy of self-funded campaigns.

Cracking Down - on Legal Permanent Residents

Prepare for more of this if electronic employment eligibility verification goes national. Reports Dianne Solís of the Dallas Morning News:

Federal immigration agents executing arrest warrants for workers at the Pilgrim’s Pride poultry plant in Mount Pleasant arrested the wrong Jesus García at his home near the plant – despite his repeated assurances that he was a legal permanent resident.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents targeted workers at Pilgrim’s plants in Texas and four other states, and by Thursday, had arrested 311 workers on identity fraud charges or immigration violations.

“We think it is a case of mistaken identity,” said Fernando Dubove, Mr. García’s attorney. “It is the wrong Jesus García. It is really tough when you have a common name.”

This is probably just coincidence, but were an electronic employment eligibility verification system in place, illegal immigrants would affirmatively pursue this as a strategy, deepening the simple identity frauds they commit now to get ‘legal’ employment. They would acquire proof of identification as good or better than the true holder of a given identity.

In my recent paper, “Electronic Employment Eligibility Verification: Franz Kafka’s Solution to Illegal Immigration,” I discussed what would happen when mistaken identity/identity fraud situations arose in the EEV systems now being debated on Capitol Hill:

[L]aw-abiding citizens would regularly stand accused of identity fraud. The SSA and DHS would not know which user of a name-SSN pair was the genuine person and which was using a false identity. EEV would tentatively nonconfirm all users of that name-SSN pair. The “true” individuals attached to fraudulently used identities would learn of identity fraud in their names when they were refused work by EEV and plunged into a bureaucratic morass.

Luckily, these victims of the system would just be denied employment and not arrested - if that’s your idea of luck …

Sensors and Social Consequences

A “sensor” is a device that measures a physical quantity and converts it into a signal that can be read by an observer or instrument. Sensors that convert analog information into digital form are the most interesting. The information they collect is easy to store, transmit, and reuse.

Digital sensors are all around - the keyboard on your computer, your cell phone, the surveillance cameras in your office building, and so on.

Lots of good things come from having these sensors around, and the systems they attach to - that’s for sure. But they don’t always serve our interests. Let’s take a look at an example of digital sensing gone wrong.

A colleague of mine recently returned from a business trip, where he engaged in important and sober work. He arrived home late from his trip, and his patient and loving wife, already in bed, engaged him in some conversation. Fairly quickly, she asked him whether he had enjoyed himself at the strip bar (!). My hard-working and serious colleague was concerned. Why, on returning to the warm glow of his happy home-life, should he be asked this question?

As he tells it, he found himself short on cash one evening, and ducked into the nearest establishment looking for an ATM. The generous purveyors of this … nightclub - who could have known it was something more? - graciously allowed him entry for the few moments it took to get the cash and be on his way.

ATMs are digital sensors. They record usage information and tie it to other details, like location. This is known as “meta-data” - information about information, such as where and when a given piece of information was collected.

The ATM transmitted this data and meta-data back to my colleague’s bank and, through an online banking system, to his wife. The system identified the ATM as being at “Antics Topless Lounge” or something like that. You can understand the short string of inferences that his caring, truly lovely wife drew when presented with this single item of sensed data.

The reporting of ATM location information is a convenience to those who may have forgotten where they used the ATM, but it’s less welcome to someone whose sweet and lovely life-partner might draw unfortunate inferences from ATM use in certain locations. Sensors have social consequences, and they’re not all good.

So I was nonplussed by the cover of the latest issue of Government Technology magazine. It shows the front of a police car, photographed from a low angle to give it a pugnacious look. (Alas, I can’t find the image online.) The car is decked out with lights and sirens, of course, but also with sensors - on the roof and behind the windshield.

“FREEZE FRAME,” says the magazine cover, “License plate scanners extend the reach of local police.” Inside, an article describes how license plate scanning by U.S. police agencies is “the next big thing” for catching stolen cars and locating suspects. But the real benefit, according to the chief of detectives and commanding officer of the Detective Bureau at the Los Angeles Police Department, “comes from the long-term value of being able to track vehicles - where they’ve been and what they’ve been doing … .”

Make no mistake: there is value in that, just like there’s value in knowing where you used the ATM. But there’s risk in that, too. It’s not an unalloyed good to give people data about your comings and goings - other than your loving, caring family, of course.

Unlike my colleague and his saintly wife, it’s none of the police’s business where law-abiding citizens have been going and what they’ve been doing. When these sensors are used for mass surveillance and not just spotting bad guys, that crosses an important line.

This is not an argument against giving police these sensors. They will be a boon for law enforcement and an aid to our safety and security. But if the back-end systems put information about every vehicle’s location into a database for later use, that’s inappropriate surveillance of the law-abiding public. Unlike my colleague’s charming, gracious, and forgiving wife, the police shouldn’t be in a position to ask us whether we enjoyed ourselves at the strip bar.