Commentary

How Big Brother Began

By Solveig Singleton
November 25, 1997

The nightmare world of constant video surveillance described by George Orwell in 1984 is one of the most compelling images of the 20th century. Big Brother is an icon of totalitarianism more familiar than real-world dictators. But policymakers who have forgotten Orwell’s lessons are even now creating government databases containing information about private citizens.

Under the welfare reform law passed in 1996, employers must report identifying information about all new employees for inclusion in a massive federal database with a name that’s pure Newspeak: the National Directory of New Hires. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 mandated a new federal medical records database, and police insist on the right to view that information without a warrant.

Our privacy is in danger because we have missed Orwell’s point — “Big Brother” is not the video camera in the department store. Big Brother is a huge government with unique police powers that can control every aspect of our lives. The technology is just an accessory — the police power is the key. We forget that real-world authoritarians will begin on a less dramatic scale, and they won’t always use newfangled devices.

The question of police access to medical information illustrates how the growth of government creates justifications for increased surveillance. Federal subsidies for health care invite fraud at taxpayer expense. Subsidies also mean rising costs, as health care consumers have no reason to shop for the best bargains. That fuels a nationwide cry for yet more federal intervention, and the cycle continues. Inevitably, medical records become federal, as the 1996 law illustrates.

The Fair Health Information Practices Act of 1997 (H.R. 52), now the subject of a Senate hearing, boasts of its new “protections” for privacy and new penalties for violations. But the bill allows the trustees of medical information to continue to release medical records to law enforcement officers without a warrant or subpoena. This bill thus ignores the most fundamental privacy protection of all, the freedom from warrantless searches provided by the Fourth Amendment.

Not content to ignore old safeguards against government surveillance, lawmakers seem determined to create new dangers. The new federal database of all new employees comes with a reassuring purpose, as familiar and comforting as Big Brother must have been to some: it will help enforce state child support orders.

But the database sweeps up far more information than necessary to serve that purpose. The premise of the law is that all citizens may be treated as suspects. New employees must be entered in the database whether they have violated a child support order or not, and even if they have no children at all. Not only child support enforcers, but also the IRS, the Social Security Administration and the Justice Department, will be able to access the database. Federal law requires that the database include the new employee’s name, address and Social Security number, but states are adding other information.

Certainly, the enforcement of child support orders is a serious problem. Coordination among the states is one way to help solve that problem. Under the Family Support Act of 1988, federal funds for child support enforcement are supposed to go only to states that successfully computerize information about child support orders. States are hampered by the task of coordinating dozens of incompatible county systems, so only 17 states — that account for only 19 percent of child support cases — met the October 1997 deadline. But until the states have done what they can to improve enforcement locally, there is little reason to involve federal bureaucrats in this sensitive and personal issue. And there is no reason at all for a federal database of those who are childless, are happily married or willingly support their children.

Imagine a state in which you must register your name and address with the authorities, just so they can find you in case you break the law. In an age when bills vaunting protections for privacy abound, and when surveys of consumers rank privacy as a top concern, could that happen here? It is already happening. When we rely on the federal government to solve our problems, we invite it to intrude upon our privacy. We are asking Big Brother to come in and make himself at home.

Solveig Singleton is director of information studies at the Cato Institute.