In the boiling pot of encroachment

Remember years ago when you first signed up for a grocery store club—discounts galore!—that tracked purchases from eggs to cereal to acne medication?

That was the beginning of the end of personal privacy.

Now domestic spying doesn’t bug us. The privacy-busting USA PATRIOT Act will likely be reauthorized this week, with little public outcry over its unconstitutionality. Filibuster or no, the Supreme Court is likely going Tot-Alito-tarian. The feds listen to our phone calls, read our e-mail, access library records. The U.S. Department of Justice sues to get Google to turn over its search records. So?

We’re used to Big Brother. Like the fabled frog in the pot of warming water, we didn’t know when to jump. James Madison once warned: “There are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.”

Besides Internet and phone use, consider the info trail we create while shopping. On a recent consumer expedition, I used a Discover card to buy waterproof boots at an outdoor store and a bottle of Riesling at a discount wine shop. At a nearby book store, I purchased Una Arruga en el Tiempo (a translation of Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time).

At Safeway, I bought gas and groceries. At the pump, I punched in my phone number. My name appeared on the screen, “Deidre M Pike, you qualify for a 3 cent discount!” Inside the store, I bought soft things and drugs for my daughter who’d just had oral surgery. For discounts on juice, pudding and Vicodin, I used my Safeway card.

At the corner video rental shop, I rented Lord of War—a powerful and telling film about arms running. The biz has a record of all films I’ve rented, from Outfoxed to The Corporation.

Something I seldom consider: Stores and credit card companies sell data to info-mining corporations like Arkansas-based Acxiom. Acxiom’s Personicx system sorts U.S. household info into 70 consumer groups based on demographics (age, gender, income) and psychographics (hobbies, beliefs, politics).

In the 2004 election, both parties used Acxiom’s lists, according to PBS’s Frontline.

Our consumer lives fascinate marketers and politicians. It’s likely that this info also interests feds curious about how we spend money—and time. ("Why the boots?” “Why in Spanish?” “Vicodin and wine?” “Subversive films, eh?")

I’m a law-abiding American. So there’s nothing to fear, right?

Unless I someday piss off the wrong person.

The Powers That Be are on steroids these days—beefy and often unreasonable. The new, improved PATRIOT Act should scare us. By the time this column runs, Judge Alito, who believes in a mighty hand for the feds, will probably be Justice Alito.

Buh-bye, what’s left of checks and balances. Nothing to stop cops from hauling people off for, say, dissent.

Feds are already turning up the heat on environmentalists. John Lewis, FBI deputy assistant director for counterterrorism, recently said animal and environmental rights extremists are the biggest domestic terrorist threat. Our biggest menace isn’t Osama—it’s PETA.

In related news, take a look at section 605 of the 2005 PATRIOT Act, so you’re not surprised when the feds start arresting protesters at rallies opposing the Iraq war, the WTO, FTAA, IMF or any “international group of which the United States is a member.”

Paranoia sets in. My options feel slim. Unless I unplug, my e-mails, Web searches and phone calls will be “theirs” for the snooping.

One thing I can do: Stop surrendering personal info for tiny discounts. Pursue an all-cash future, shop at places where I’m not a bar code, avoid Blockbuster, TiVo and MySpace.

I refuse to believe it’s too late to leap.