Celebrating the 4th Amendment

As I write this, it’s Independence Day and my small town is part of a surveillance state.

July 4, 2013

As I write this, it’s Independence Day. The small town I live in celebrates in traditional style. The volunteer firefighters had their dance last night in a parking lot just down the street, so we were serenaded by country music late into the evening. Today there’s a parade that features children, dogs wearing hats, the high school band, the local drum and bugle corps, and  quite a lot of farm equipment. Hundreds of townsfolk will have a picnic in the town square colloquially known as “Swede park” thanks to our immigrant past, and tonight there will be fireworks at the county fairgrounds. Norman Rockwell would feel right at home.

It seems very strange that information about every phone call residents of this small town make is recorded by the state. That a shadowy but vast federal agency peers through hidden doors into the record of our lives stored by Facebook and Yahoo and Google. That letters dropped off at my local post office are, apparently, routinely logged because, well, somebody once sent anthrax through the mail.  

That’s why you can’t have nice things, America.

Frank Rich thinks we have the surveillance state we deserve, after indulging in trashy reality television, engaging in TMI on the Internet, and failing to be more like Thoreau. He’s more or less saying what so many Silicon Valley types have said , “privacy? There is no such thing anymore. Get over it,” only with finger-shaking.

I’m not ready yet to throw up my hands and say privacy doesn’t matter because businesses have coaxed us to share personal information in ways once considered unseemly. I’m not ready to give up just because technology has made it so easy for the state to gather, store, and analyze quantities of information. I’m not ready to trade supposed security of the “homeland” (that vaguely fascist term that only came into vogue post 9/11) for the freedoms we long ago encoded in our constitution and which we declared and celebrate on the 4th of July.

Last week, at the American Library Association annual meeting, a resolution supporting Edward Snowden was adopted, but later changed to make a broader statement about the abuses he exposed, putting the focus where it belongs.  It states the association’s “unwavering support for the fundamental principles that are the foundation of our free and democratic society, including a system of public accountability, government transparency, and oversight that supports people’s right to know about and participate in our government.” It urges “reform our nation’s climate of secrecy, overclassification, and secret law regarding national security and surveillance, to align with these democratic principles.” It calls for the government to “provide authentic protections that prevent government intimidation and criminal prosecution of government employees and private contractors who make lawful disclosures of wrong doing in the intelligence community.” Amen to all that.

So this is the fourth I’m celebrating today.

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Though the founders could not have envisioned the sharing-enabled world we live in, they had the good sense to recognize the need to limit government intrusion to guarantee fundamental rights that are no less important today than when they declared our independence.  

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