9-11 and Privacy (715 words)
Could not a Pearl Harbor-like national emergency cause the federal government to subpoena or impound the major public and private databases including those of Abacus, Acxiom, Experian and the Census Bureau? At that point Washington would know everything about everybody in the country, including the color of our underwear.
—Famous Last Words, August, 2001
When John F. Kennedy was shot, many of his Secret Service detail had hangovers, the result of a night of drinking. Not only was it a national tragedy, but a national embarrassment—compounded by the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald, who was in protective custody of the Dallas police. To make up for its poor performance, the American law enforcement community went on a tear, attempting to tie the crime to anyone remotely connected to Oswald. One such person presumed guilty was a friend and neighbor of Marina Oswald, who was also the sister-in-law of my employer's son. He and his wife—who were totally innocent—were hounded for months with a series of hostile interviews and constantly tailed. Any written references always included the connection to the Kennedy assassination, which meant they were effectively blackballed from getting a job. Finally, Minnesota Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey stepped in and called off the dogs.
This was 1963-1964, when individual data were scattered—much of it on pieces of paper in files, some of it on computers—in insurance companies, doctors' offices, telephone companies, credit card companies, banks, the IRS, etc. To create a complete dossier would require a court-ordered subpoena duces tecum that would give authorities access to all the records at these disparate locations to put together a profile.
Today, this entire process can be accomplished with a few keystrokes.
I write this on Sept. 11 after a crazed day of watching terrorism and tears, heroism and horror as a Mobius loop of tape continually replayed the plane crashes, explosions, collapsing buildings, and untold numbers of individual human tragedies.