Big Brother Is Watching You: THE ASSAULT ON PRIVACY!
Stanley R Rader & Keith W Stump
Increasingly, the government and the news media are intruding into the personal lives of private citizens. Tacit acceptance by an apathetic public of illegal and unethical surveillance practices is pushing us ever closer to the nightmare world of 1984!
"You had to live in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized." That is the frightening world of George Orwell's 1984 a world where two-way "telescreens" and unremitting surveillance make solitude an impossibility, privacy a punishable crime. It is the government of "Big Brother," a government that pries into all aspects of citizens' lives. It is also a world which lies nearer at hand than most of us would like to admit. It is a world which many well-meaning people are unwittingly helping to usher in. Our lives today are increasingly becoming an open book. No one lives a truly private life anymore. We are being watched, scrutinized, examined. We live in a goldfish bowl. We are citizens of the "naked society." A surprising amount of what we do or say in public and often in private is gathered, summarized, evaluated, codified, transferred, combined and filed away by number. The erosion of personal privacy has become a hallmark of our computerized, technologically sophisticated age. Indeed, the right to privacy now stands in greater jeopardy than at any time in the history of mankind! What emerges, upon investigation, is a chilling picture of a democracy being eaten away by the unrestrained use of intrusive technology, a democracy being undermined by governmental and private institutions left to their own devices through the apathy of the citizenry. The implications are frightening. This erosion of privacy can be traced to the workings of two main power centers; government and the news media.
The Right to Privacy
Privacy is customarily defined as the right of an individual to withhold himself and his property from public scrutiny if he so chooses. It has often been noted, however, that the "right to privacy" is not specifically mentioned in the U.S. Constitution; indeed, the word "privacy" itself never appears. Most legal authorities nevertheless regard the right to privacy as unquestionably inherent in the Bill of Rights. The late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis recognized this in his dissenting opinion in Olmstead vs. U.S. (1928): "The makers of our constitution sought to protect Americans in their beliefs, their thoughts, their emotions and their sensations. They conferred, as against the government, the right to be left alone the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men." The main protection for privacy in the Constitution is the Fourth Amendment, which asserts that "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated ...." The Fifth Amendment is also pertinent, stating in part that "no person shall be... deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation." Moreover, the Supreme Court has acted to strengthen the concept of privacy, holding in Boyd vs. U.S. that the doctrines of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments "apply to all invasions on the part of the government and its employes of the sanctity of a man's home and the privacies of life...." Many states have also enacted privacy laws. The state constitution of California, for example, specifies the "inalienable right" to privacy. The framers of the U.S. Constitution well remembered the infamous British "writs of assistance" general warrants authorizing wide-ranging searches. It was not uncommon for officials of the British Crown to burst unannounced into colonial homes and businesses, arresting the occupants and seizing property. Nevertheless, that "most valued" right of privacy which the Founding Fathers built into the Constitution is now being increasingly trampled upon, pushing us ever closer to the brink of Orwell's "Big Brother" world of 1984. Few realize the extreme gravity of the situation. Let us briefly examine the many ways by which government and the news media are undermining this most basic of rights the right to privacy.
"This Is Your Life!"
How would you react were Congress to announce that it was considering a bill permitting the government to establish a large-scale computerized system by which, at the mere touch of a few buttons and a little crosschecking with other agencies, government employees would have, for detailed scrutiny, almost instant access to a full picture of your life financial data, tax information, medical and employment histories, educational records, a family profile, arrest records, political and religious affiliations, and much, much more? Would you protest? Unfortunately, you'd be a bit late. The government has had such a capability for a number of years now. And it's all legal. Chances are good that your personal life is all recorded on tape somewhere in the government's computer data banks. An immense accumulation of chillingly complete personal data often including the most intimate details of the private lives of citizens is being stored in a vast network of government computers. As many national newsmagazines have reported, every American is the subject of some ten to twenty government files. Distressingly, this information is available not only to government employees conducting routine government business, but is often accessible to unauthorized persons outside the government as well. There is, of course, no malicious intent on the part of the government in its data collection. Record-keeping in itself does not constitute a violation of privacy. It is what is done with that documentation that is important. Despite the passage of legislation such as the Freedom of Information Act (as amended in 1974) and the Privacy Act of 1974, the potential for misuse and abuse remains real. "These laws leave large gaps," admits Representative Barry M. Goldwater, Jr. (R-Calif.) "At some point in the not-too-distant future," warns David F. Linowes, former head of the now defunct Privacy Protection Study Commission, "data collection, maintenance and dissemination may no longer be merely a tool of society, but will instead become an end in itself a force with awesome powers of surveillance and control over the lives of individuals." Were a dictator ever to take charge of this country, he would have at his fingertips the technological capacity to impose total and absolute tyranny on its citizens. Government data banks could become the basis for a system of harassment, surveillance and manipulation.
The Walls Have Ears!
From the advent of Watergate nearly seven years ago, nationwide public attention has been drawn again and again to yet another form of government snooping-electronic eavesdropping. Disclosures of illicit government as well as private-wiretapping, bugging and other forms of electronic surveillance have increased in recent years, despite attempts at regulation. No one really knows how widespread government electronic surveillance is. Electronic eavesdropping is defined as the act of electronically intercepting conversations without the knowledge or consent of the participants. It includes the clandestine taping of telephone and other personal conversations by means of wiretapping (making a secret connection with a telephone line), bugging (the placing of a miniature microphone in a room, usually necessitating a break-in or trespass), the use of ultra-sensitive directional microphones to listen to conversations from a distance, laser beams which pick up distant conversations and relay them back to the listener, and dozens of other sophisticated techniques. Cervantes' famous observation four centuries ago in Don Quixote has today literally come to pass: "Walls have ears!" Present law prohibits electronic eavesdropping by private individuals. A great deal of illegal private electronic surveillance is nevertheless regularly carried on. Private electronic espionage has become so widespread that it has spawned a whole new business that of electronic counter-surveillance or "debugging," the detection and removal of illicit surveillance devices. Recognizing that taps and bugs are a serious assault upon our privacy and the fundamental values of our democracy, a number of states have enacted electronic eavesdropping laws. The California Penal Code, for example, provides fines up to $2500, prison sentences up to three years, or both, for any person who intentionally taps or makes any unauthorized connection with any telegraph or telephone wire, line, cable or instrument, including any internal telephonic communication system. It also protects against those who would, intentionally and without the consent of all parties to a confidential communication, eavesdrop upon. or record such confidential communication by means of any electronic amplifying or recording device. Such laws, however, are violated daily. When it comes to federal or state governments, electronic eavesdropping is legally permissible under certain circumstances. If a federal or state police agency, for example, desires to use a bug or wiretap in a domestic criminal or domestic security case, it must first obtain a valid court order. This usually entails convincing a judge that there is probable cause to believe a crime is being committed and that the police would be best aided in solving it by electronic eavesdropping. In the case of electronic surveillance requests by federal agencies, the agency must first get the approval of the Attorney General before going to court to obtain an order. No court order is necessary in cases of national security wiretaps. The federal agency involved has only to get the written authorization of the Attorney General. Frequently, as we have witnessed in recent years, all these, "formalities" are bypassed completely by police or federal agents who place taps and bugs without obtaining the proper court orders or other authorization. While evidence seized illegally is usually not admissible in criminal proceedings, such unconscionable practices nevertheless constitute a gross violation and betrayal of the right to privacy, and a potential threat to our democratic system. Efforts to rigidly define the point at which a valid objective of law enforcement in the detection and documentation of crime becomes an invasion of privacy have generally failed. Thus the controversy over the use by government of electronic surveillance techniques persists. Meanwhile, electronic eavesdropping legal and illegal, governmental and private continues unabated.
Government is not the only realm in which such techniques are enjoying increased popularity. Hidden bugging devices and other types of eavesdropping equipment are rapidly becoming accepted tools of the trade of the investigative journalist. As one recently published book on investigative reporting puts it: "After all, how many reporters wouldn't use a good phone tap if they could buy one for $20? Or a $15 microphone that looks like a dead cockroach and could be surreptitiously dropped under a mayor's desk? Some reporters we know are already beginning to think in these terms" (David Anderson and Peter Benjaminson, Investigative Reporting, p. 146). The book also predicts that "eventually such devices will be readily and cheaply available and will become a very common part of politics and business." Interestingly, the book spends little time discussing legal and ethical considerations of such practices. In addition to the growing unauthorized use of electronic eavesdropping techniques, the news media are increasingly engaging in yet another, equally insidious form of privacy invasion: the reckless and unprincipled use of informants and tipsters for surreptitious surveillance. Informants who possess definite, tangible and personal knowledge of criminal wrongdoing should naturally come forward and present their information in confidence to the proper authorities for investigation. Such actions are not at issue. What is at issue is the increasing use by the press of unsubstantiated tips provided by often questionable individuals as the primary basis for many of their "news" stories. While journalism textbooks strongly caution reporters to be highly suspect of any information provided by informants or "inside dopesters," such cautions go largely unheeded. A need for caution on the part of journalists unquestionably exists. As has been repeatedly demonstrated, the motives of many informants are often, to say the least, less than pure. Some sources, for example, have provided their "information" some times highly exaggerated, distorted or even fabricated to the news media in an attempt to avenge themselves on their superiors or colleagues who they feel have done them injury. Others have done it for personal financial gain. Still others are simply on a personal ego trip, deriving a sense of self-importance from snooping around and playing "spy." In the first place, the very fact that these individuals would take it upon themselves to invade the privacy and betray the trust of their employers and associates by violating the confidentiality of private conversations and other personal information should, in itself be a tip-off to reporters that their moral integrity is seriously in question. As the previously cited book on. investigative reporting observes, informants "are not necessarily ethical .... and everyone of their tips must be thoroughly checked out, especially if the reporter senses that the newly discovered journalistic egos of the volunteer aides are driving them to exaggeration." In the end, the book stresses, "it's the reporter, not the source, who is responsible for reportorial inaccuracies." Nevertheless, lazy and irresponsible newsmen persist in docilely passing on to the reading and viewing public the wild allegations, insinuations, innuendos, hearsay and gossip being fed to them by informants without properly checking the information out. Reputations are thereby irreparably damaged, character is defamed, human dignity is debased. And when the unsubstantiated charges and allegations are later disproved by documentation or litigation, more often than not little or no mention of the fact is made on the air or in the press. So much for journalistic "fair play." It is true that when a person becomes involved in a news event, he forfeits the right to privacy. But that does not constitute a license for the unwarranted and unrestrained publishing of damaging and unsubstantiated allegation and hearsay. As the French philosopher Voltaire wisely advised: "When we hear. news, we should always wait for the sacrament of confirmation." Evidently few journalists are reading Voltaire., In response to such charges, many newsmen are quick to cry "freedom of the press!" They assert that if society is to benefit from a free press, reporters and editors must have free and total access to all types of information and freedom to print it without prior restraint or excessive reprisal. At issue is the clash between the First Amendment right of a newspaper to collect news and an individual's or organization's Fourth Amendment right to privacy. Some journalists have gone so far as to assert that freedom of the press must be absolutely protected even when used irresponsibly, unethically or even illegally. Such newsmen confuse liberty with license. The Founding Fathers provided for freedom of the press, but he who used that freedom was still to be responsible in the event of its abuse just as surely as a person must pay a penalty if, in the course of exercising his freedom to bear arms, he should use his firearm to commit murder. Accurately reporting a libelous assertion does not absolve the journalist of culpability. Bias and reckless disregard of the truth are totally indefensible. Many reporters nevertheless continue to coast blindly along, giving little thought to questions of the ethics of their profession, let alone of law and of the constitutionality of some of their questionable "newsgathering" techniques. They are seemingly willing, through some strange form of contradictory reasoning, to infringe upon personal freedoms in order to perform their mission of "preserving" our freedoms. And amid it all, the vast majority of people people whose personal liberties are not for the moment being encroached upon sit idly back, oblivious to the ominous implications for the future. Such cavalier disregard and unconcern for journalistic ethics and legal and constitutional considerations was highlighted recently when a nationally known network investigative reporter remarked publicly, in a somewhat offhand manner, that he did not know where a tape of a private conversation in his possession came from, or indeed whether the tape was legally obtained. The public's "right to know" is no excuse for crime and constitutional violation. In short, many journalists today are found to be aligning themselves with "Big Brother" just as surely as some government agencies, in the name of "security" and "law enforcement," are found to be breaking and subverting the law in order to "enforce" the law. The media's blatant disregard for decency, impartiality, accuracy and fair play and its deliberate pandering to vicious instincts are a disgrace to the journalistic profession and an affront to the First Amendment. "Democracy's weapon," as the press has often been called, has become a two-edged sword.
What ultimately happens when a government becomes so obsessed with security that laws are freely violated; when the media resort to extralegal, unethical and unconstitutional means to fulfill their highly touted "watchdog" role? What happens when people begin to reason that the "higher" interests of the nation transcend those of the individual that people, to use the words of former FBI Director Clarence Kelley, "must be willing to surrender a small measure of their liberties to preserve the great bulk of them"? To answer these questions, consider the following statement: "It is necessary that the individual should finally come to realize that his own ego is of no importance in comparison with the existence of his nation ... that the higher interests involved in the life of the whole must here set the limits and lay down the duties and the interests of the individual." The author? Adolf Hitler. As the 18th-century Scottish philosopher and historian David Hume observed: "It is seldom that liberty of any kind is lost all at once." Few men will willingly relinquish their rights and liberties wholesale. But when citizens begin to gradually and without protest surrender to government and to other segments of society (including the Fourth Estate) even the smallest part of their individual liberties, their inevitable fate is sealed. Ultimately, the Bill of Rights and democracy itself are doomed. Caesar Augustus, a sincere and generally well-meaning individual, did not intend to beget the creeping tyranny that led ultimately to the reign of Nero. The gradual and, at first, virtually unnoticeable abridgment of liberties begun in his reign nevertheless gave rise, at length, to despotism. As President Madison astutely observed: "Since the general civilization of mankind, I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations." As long as the personal life-style of the individual citizen is not perceived to be threatened, that individual will usually choose to ignore silent encroachments upon his freedoms. The gradual loss of liberties is endured without protest. Ideals are sold out to personal affluence and comfort. But the time will inevitably come when the effects of "creeping authoritarianism" will not be able to be ignored. It is usually only after it is too late that the majority finally wakes up and sees for the first time the shackles which by degrees have been placed upon them by those who, more often than not, have purported to have been working for the welfare and safety of society. As Mr. Justice Brandeis observed: "Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the government's purposes are beneficent. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers. The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in the insidious encroachments by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding." The right to privacy is but one of many constitutional freedoms that today stand in jeopardy. Other freedoms most notably the very freedom of religion upon which many of our states were founded also stand in grave peril. The liberties we have been given in this nation are blessings which must be preserved and protected against encroachment. They are liberties and freedoms denied to the majority of mankind. They must be jealously guarded as well as enjoyed. But if the forces of subversion continue to hold sway as they do at present, the novel J 984 may prove to have been more a prophecy than a fantasy. When snooping police helicopters begin hovering outside your windows, when omnipresent telescreens begin monitoring your every movement and recording your every word, when your neighbors and friends, in the service of Big Brother, begin informing on your private words and deeds then it will be too late for the private citizen to speak up. For then there will be no private citizens! The time to stand up for the noble ideals of a private life and the inalienable rights of the individual is now, before things get further out of hand. For if public action is not taken and taken quickly to protect and reaffirm the Constitution, there will soon be precious few rights left to preserve. The record of history bears witness to that certainty. But even if the worst is ultimately realized, we as Christians will derive hope from the knowledge that a better system is not far off. The time is fast approaching when the entire earth will at last be ruled in perfect wisdom, justice and discretion by the very government of God a time when true and complete freedom will finally be known among all men for the first time.