Watching You: Systematic Federal Surveillance of Ordinary Americans

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To combat terrorism, Attorney General JohnAshcroft has asked Congress to "enhance" thegovernment's ability to conduct domestic surveillanceof citizens. The Justice Department's legislativeproposals would give federal law enforcementagents new access to personal informationcontained in business and school records. Beforeacting on those legislative proposals, lawmakersshould pause to consider the extent to which thelives of ordinary Americans already are monitoredby the federal government.

Over the years, the federal government hasinstituted a variety of data collection programsthat compel the production, retention, and disseminationof personal information about everyAmerican citizen. Linked through an individual'sSocial Security number, these labor, medical,education and financial databases nowempower the federal government to obtain adetailed portrait of any person: the checks hewrites, the types of causes he supports, and whathe says "privately" to his doctor. Despite widespreadpublic concern about preserving privacy,these data collection systems have been enactedin the name of "reducing fraud" and "promotingefficiency" in various government programs.

Having exposed most areas of American lifeto ongoing government scrutiny and recording,Congress is now poised to expand and universalizefederal tracking of citizen life. Theinevitable consequence of such constant surveillance,however, is metastasizing governmentcontrol over society. If that happens, our governmentwill have perverted its most fundamentalmission and destroyed the privacy and libertythat it was supposed to protect.

Charlotte Twight

Charlotte Twight is a professor of economics at Boise State University, a lawyer, and the author of Dependent on D.C.: The Rise of Federal Control over the Lives of Ordinary Americans(Palgrave/St. Martin's, January 2002), from which this is excerpted.