You’re a suspect

Privacy is on our minds lately, but nobody seems to be connecting the dots in a meaningful way. Sure, we hear overwrought news stories about Facebook and data-mining and all that, but when TSA searches, cameras on street corners, and DUI checkpoints come up on news reports, reporters sensationalize incidents. Few make the point that these losses of privacy illustrate another principle: Our government at every level—local, state, federal—has made a fundamental shift in how it perceives its citizens.

It’s a stretch, but think back to the 1942 movie Casablanca. Remember that bit where Renault tells his men to “round up the usual suspects”? In those days, when a person lived a wholesome life and kept out of the authority’s sphere, he or she was not inconvenienced by government’s intrusive eyes and fingers. In other words, a person’s past decided whether he or she would be considered one of “the usual suspects.” If they made a habit of thieving, assaulting or burglarizing, they became a member of “the usual suspects.”

So what’s changed? These days, with the internet’s near-infinite knowledge base and memory, not having a government-searchable personal database is almost as damning as having a rap sheet as long as your arm. If you have a rap sheet, at least the government knows what you’re about. But it’s the low-profile, no criminal background people who are most likely to fit the profile of radicalized terrorist.

So, if you’re a suspect because you’re a habitual criminal, and you’re a suspect because you’ve led a blameless life, what’s that mean? It means this: To our government, everyone’s a suspect.

Little by little, the government’s inability to discern the quality of information in its ever growing data trove has eroded our rights to privacy. The U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment: “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.”

So, some single nutjob puts a bomb in his shoe, and now we all have to take off our shoes to get on an airplane. Some lunatic puts a bomb in his panties, and now TSA can see grandpa’s genitals. Someone got killed on the road, and now we’re all subject to being stopped and questioned—and police are not even looking to catch the highest number of drunk drivers. It appears their goal is to raise awareness without inconveniencing the powers that be.

So, when you call the bank on your cell phone, when you make a joke on Facebook, when you make a search query on Google, when you walk down a busy street, contemplate this question: What do you call a government system where only the individuals who are conducting interviews are above suspicion?