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.
From the politicians, terrorism experts and law enforcement community, two messages came through loud and clear: 1) save as many lives as possible; 2) get the guys who did it.
Privacy vs. Public Safety
We all are at risk every day. Is it, therefore, not imperative for law enforcement to be able to track down every scrap of information about these suspects from every available source—including every imaginable database? I say yes.
What about the off-the-wall leads or phoned-in leads by mischief-makers?
Again, I say yes. But on a highly controlled basis under the following rules:
1. Law enforcement must get a blanket court order to get any information from any source—including private databases—on an individual who is believed to be a suspect.
2. The information and resultant dossiers are to be encrypted and housed in one place only.
3. The data must be kept absolutely secret, "owned" by an individual, released to a new "owner" on a need-to-know basis only, relinquished by the new "owner" and returned to the original "owner" when no longer needed.
4. Any leaks to anybody is automatically grounds for jail to the leaker. Not a slap on the wrist. Not being fired. The can. The reason: If a news story said, for example, the suspect ordered blue underwear from a specific catalog, it could wreck consumer confidence in that catalog's ability to maintain privacy and put the catalog out of business.
5. Once the subject is adjudged not relevant to the investigation, the entire dossier and all references to it are destroyed.
6. If the dossier is not destroyed in an expeditious manner, the data "owner" does jail time.
7. Anyone found to be on a fishing or general profiling expedition in the database goes to jail.
I think if this system were in place back in 1963-1964, the nightmare of my employer's son and his family would have been over much more quickly and they could have gone on with their lives without being publicly tainted.
I can live with this. Can you?
Denny Hatch, consulting editor, is a freelance copywriter and consultant, founder of Who's Mailing What! (now Inside Direct Mail) and former editor in chief of Target Marketing, is the author of "Method Marketing" and "2,239 Tested Secrets for Direct Marketing Success." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.methodmarketing.com