The March Of The Surveillance State

Almost all the news you read on the subject of government surveillance of the citizenry is about the NSA and its programs of broadly sweeping up all emails and telephone metadata.  While I wouldn't say that there's nothing to be concerned about there, the NSA is a tiny tip of the iceberg.  After all, if you ask any government bureaucrat charged with some aspect of the security of the people to do his job better, his answer will always be the same -- "I can just monitor all of the people all of the time."  Today, I'll discuss a few examples of the ongoing march toward the panopticon surveillance state.  Remarkably, all of this is a phenomenon of the very recent years, thirteen at most in the case of the examples below.

  • As previously reported by me here, under Section 505 of the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001 the government claims the right to send a so-called "National Security Letter" to your bank or other financial institution, requiring it to turn over all information it has about you, and it is a felony for the bank to tell you that it has received the letter or what it is turning over.   In March 2013, in a case called In re: National Security Letter, Judge Susan Illston of the Northern District of California ruled the "gag" provisions of the PATRIOT Act unconstitutional for failure to incorporate procedures to prevent the imposition of illegal prior restraints on speech.  But the ruling was stayed pending the government's appeal.  Of course they appealed.  According to an update here from plaintiff Electronic Frontier Foundation, the appeal has now been fully briefed, and oral argument at the Ninth Circuit was held on October 8.  There is an audio of the oral argument at the link.  The wheels of justice grind slowly.  Meanwhile you must assume that the government is monitoring all of your financial transactions at all times behind your back.
  • Realizing that the idea of instituting a "national ID card" would be a complete non-starter with the American people, the government figured out that the better approach would be to turn the state driver's license into a national ID card by stealth and behind your back.  This process began with the so-called REAL ID Act of 2005.  That one surprisingly got lots of push back, with an actual majority of states stepping up and saying that the feds had no authority to do this and they would not comply.  Actually, of course, the states had only minimal concern for protecting the citizens against government spying and overreach, and were mostly concerned about the cost.  And then you just don't hear about the issue for a long time.  So what do you think is happening?  Of course, one by one the states are crumbling.   Here from the Department of Homeland Security is a state-by-state list of who's in "compliance" with the federal mandate, who is non-compliant, and who has an extension.  Turns out that 48 states and territories either are in compliance or have an extension, which I presume means they are hard at work on complying.  A big seven states and one territory (American Samoa!) are still non-compliant.  One of the non-compliant states is New York, and believe me, in the case of New York it has nothing to do with doing the right thing by citizens and has only to do with cost.  Read the HHS write-up at the link, and you will see that they are threatening to bar your citizens from air travel beginning in 2016 if you don't come into compliance. 
  • I've recently been told by extended family members that when they go to a doctor and are getting a prescription, the doctor looks them up on his computer and there is a list of what prescriptions they already have.  How does that happen?  This one, it turns out, is a program of New York State, supposedly to deal with "prescription drug abuse."  According to the web site of the New York Department of Health, all prescriptions for so-called Schedule II, III and IV controlled substances in New York must now be reported to a state data base called "I-STOP/PMP," and "most prescribers are required to consult the Prescription Monitoring Program (PMP) Registry when writing prescriptions"  for those drugs.  So 1 or 2% of patients may be abusing some prescription drugs, and to prevent that, everybody gets monitored all the time.  Nothing to it!  Time to find a pharmacy in Canada.  The rumor I hear is that the government is already on to that one and has a plan to ban paper prescriptions and make all prescriptions electronic and thus monitorable by them.  OK, time to find a doctor in Canada! Believe me, none of this will have the slightest effect on the availability of meth or ecstasy or oxycontin or whatever on the black market.  Since they have to know that, the only logical conclusion is that the real purpose is to get more ability to surveil the honest, law-abiding populace. 
  • You probably haven't been paying attention to this one, but the big news in the federal tax bar is that all international tax treaties have been held up for several years by Senator Rand Paul.  The reason given by Paul is that, whatever else may be in these treaties, they all contain provisions for information exchange between the tax authorities of the signatories, even in the absence of any specific reason to think the taxpayer has done anything wrong.  (The reason that one Senator can hold up all these treaties is that they are typically cleared by a procedure called "unanimous consent.")  In a speech on the Senate floor on May 22, 2014, Paul said (sorry I don't have a link): "Many of the previous treaties that we have had in the past focused on information specific to tax fraud . . . .  What we are doing is taking the standard down to something [that] 'may be relevant,' which could be a dragnet for getting everyone's information. . . .  I cannot support a treaty that would pave the way for a law that would permit the IRS to share information of customers at U.S. banks with foreign governments."  Bravo to that, but I wonder how long he can actually hold out.  Many of these treaties contain provisions that, for example, eliminate double taxation situations for American businesses.  Some are with not-unimportant countries, like Switzerland.  So will this one go the way of REAL ID?  Anyway, at least this one item of panopticon surveillance is not a done deal -- yet.