Sit back for a minute or two and play a little imagination game with me. Clear your thoughts of plans to run to the grocery store or how you need to tackle the garden weeds, close your mental doors against the incessant running commentary about the job, the kids, your elderly folks, the dog scratching at the door to get in. Just ... imagine, if you will:
Your mail for the day has arrived at your local post office. There’s a birthday card from an old friend, your statement from the bank, several pieces of trash mail, an invitation from the ACLU to renew your membership and a letter from your 86-year-old Aunt Mary, who doesn’t have a computer and never will, so she writes long, quarterly missives to you on small sheets of thin, scented lavender paper with lacy edges in a hand from another time. There’s also a phone bill and two magazines.
Soon, your sorted mail will be in the mail carrier’s truck, ready to deliver. But first it’s taken by a fellow in a dark suit to a separate room, where he sits down at a desk with a computer, a scanner, and a couple of telephones. He picks up his razor-edged paper knife and smoothly and methodically slits every envelope with your name on it, slips the contents out and, with care and attention to detail, reads everything that was intended for your eyes only.
The fellow makes note of your past involvement with the ACLU – you sent the civil rights organization $25 in a mad moment three years ago and, while you’ve ignored their pleas for more money ever since, they still send the occasional request. The fellow keys your name and particulars onto a watch list of potential subversives and scans the pages into his computer.
He riffles through your magazines – Harper’s and The Nation – and notes that you seem to favor liberal writers, both fiction and non-fiction. This tracks nicely with the ACLU mail. He makes note.
He looks at your birthday card, just a jokey thing, innocuous, and notes your friend’s name and address in his computer as someone to check out.
Your bank statement reveals that your current balance is $254.87 and that you made a deposit three days ago of $500, which covered a couple of overdrafts and left you a little over until payday. He wonders where you got that $500 and whether you’ll be noting the income on your taxes next year, and flags this information for the IRS. He also peruses your debit card purchases. Hmmm. Several were to Amazon.com. He flags this as well so that his colleagues can look into what sort of books you’re reading.
The statement is scanned for further study.
Your telephone bill tells him not only that you’ve called a number in Germany but that you’ve made several long distance calls across the U.S., two to San Francisco, one to Chicago, three to Portland, Oregon. The rest are local calls, but it would, he thinks, be wise to trace those down and do a little investigating. He scans it, saves it.
Finally, he slices open Aunt Mary’s letter. In it he discovers $50 in cash – ostensibly for your birthday – “have a nice dinner out on me, sweetie,” she writes. She asks how you’re feeling after your wrist surgery and whether you’ll be able to come visit one day soon. And she prattles on, reminiscing about your antics as a teen, a young adult, and how much she enjoyed attending that movie with you a couple of years ago when she was out visiting – “Fahrenheit 9-11.”
He makes note. Aunt Mary’s letter is scanned before he refolds it neatly, holds it briefly to his nose to breathe in the scent of lavender, and returns it to its envelope.
Then, he reseals all the violated mail with red, white and blue tinted tape, each strip printed with the words “U.S. Mail Inspection – Keeping You Safe” and takes it all back to the mail carrier so it can be delivered to you later in the day.
Then he chooses, at random, another person’s mail for inspection.
It is, he thinks, a fascinating job.
Outraged? Not yet? After all, our little imaginary moment is just that, imaginary. The U.S. Mail is and long has been -- unless you’re under criminal investigation and the police have a warrant – inviolate. In fact, there are laws on the books against anyone opening private mail not addressed specifically to them.
But today, as you read this, the National Security Agency is busy logging – without a warrant -- all your phone calls. Yes, they swear they’re only looking for overseas calls to places like Iran, in case you’re planning terrorist activity – but all your calls are logged, nevertheless, and kept in a vast database. All they need are phone numbers; it’s not hard to learn a great deal about you and the people you’re calling using those alone.
Of course, you have nothing to hide. You’re not calling terrorists or planning attacks on anything or anyone. You’re just an ordinary American with a weedy garden and a nice, three-day weekend ahead for cleaning it up. Monday, you’ll be breaking out the barbecue for the first time this summer.
How would feel about having your Internet usage records perused by the government? By having the websites you visit daily noted and your e-mail read and saved against a rainy day? Yes, some of this is happening already, if the government has reason to believe you’re involved in criminal activity of some sort – and has a warrant. But check this out:
Gonzales pressures ISPs on data retention
By Declan McCullagh
Story last modified Fri May 26 18:15:43 PDT 2006
U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and FBI Director Robert Mueller on Friday urged telecommunications officials to record their customers' Internet activities, CNET News.com has learned.
In a private meeting with industry representatives, Gonzales, Mueller and other senior members of the Justice Department said Internet service providers should retain subscriber information and network data for two years, according to two sources familiar with the discussion who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The closed-door meeting at the Justice Department, which Gonzales had requested, according to the sources, comes as the idea of legally mandated data retention has become popular on Capitol Hill and inside the Bush administration. Supporters of the idea say it will help prosecutions of child pornography because in many cases, logs are deleted during the routine course of business.
In a speech last month at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Gonzales said that Internet providers must retain records for a “reasonable amount of time.”
“I will reach out personally to the CEOs of the leading service providers and to other industry leaders,” Gonzales said. “Record retention by Internet service providers consistent with the legitimate privacy rights of Americans is an issue that must be addressed.”
Until Gonzales' speech, the Bush administration had generally opposed laws requiring data retention, saying it had “serious reservations” about them. But after the European Parliament last December approved such a requirement for Internet, telephone and voice over Internet Protocol providers, top administration officials began talking about the practice more favorably.
During Friday's meeting, Justice Department officials passed around pixellated (that is, slightly obscured) photographs of child pornography to emphasize the lurid nature of the crimes police are trying to prevent, according to one source.
A Justice Department spokesman familiar with the administration's stand on data retention was in meetings on Friday and unavailable for comment, a department representative said.
Concerned? Read the rest here.
No one likes child molesters. Everyone wants to see them caught and, preferably, put away for a long, long time so they can’t do anyone any harm. But ISP data retention would allow the government to look for far more than just pedophiles.
You know, I hate sounding like Chicken Little. But after everything that’s happened in America since 2000, do you really feel comfortable when your government says, “trust us”?
I sure don’t.
Hat tip to Driftglass for snagging this one.