“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.”
The above words are ones that all Americans should know by heart. They are the body and the text of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, from the Bill of Rights. These are the fundamental protections that we were all given more than 200 years ago by a group of extraordinary men from an extraordinary time, men who were able to rise above their own limitations and the partisan disputes of the day to craft a set of supplementary principles that made the original Constitution even stronger in its protection of our liberties. One of the primary reasons why the founding fathers found it necessary to add these additional guarantees was their fear that demagogic politicians might try to twist and manipulate any gaps or ambiguities in the Constitution to serve their own self-serving nefarious purposes.
Unfortunately, the founding fathers, in all of their wisdom, clearly underestimated the cleverness of the demagogues. Just this summer, a law emerged from committee in the House of Representatives that, if passed, will basically turn the Fourth Amendment into a quaint catch phrase with no relevance to life in a post-Constitutional twenty-first-century America.
Spinning the Spider Web
In a modern context, the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects certainly applies to online activities. The Internet is recognized by everyone as a private world where people have the right to protect their personal information, communications, and choices of reading material from prying eyes. This is the reason why there are passwords and anonymous usernames wherever we go, because it is a given that people do not want others to know what they have been doing when they are navigating through the virtual world from the privacy of their own computer in the sanctity of their own home.
But Congress, using the excuse that police departments and federal law investigative agencies need more access to the records of people’s Internet activity in order to effectively fight crime, is now trying to pass a new law that would force Internet providers to collect and preserve the personal information and web browsing history of every single man, woman, and child who uses the Internet for a period of one full year. The type of information that IPs would be required to save would include:
- Phone numbers
- Credit card numbers
- Bank account numbers
- Temporary IP addresses
The point of preserving all of this information would be so that law enforcement agencies could have access to it at any time of their choosing. Ostensibly, a person would have to be under investigation for a crime before such a demand could be legally made with respect to their personal Internet records. But it would take little more than a simple declaration from a law enforcement agency stating that someone was indeed under investigation to legitimize the seizing of personal information from an IP. Police departments and the FBI actually would not have to prove to anyone that a particular individual really was connected to something illegal. They only have to claim that this is the case, and the entire online history from the past year of the person they are allegedly investigating would automatically be made available for their scrutiny and perusal.
In an astonishing bit of chutzpah, the House sponsors of the bill have labeled it the “Protecting Children from Internet Pornographers Act of 2011.” It cannot be strongly enough emphasized, however, that this law is not aimed at individuals who are suspected of purchasing child pornography or of being involved somehow in that industry. Local, federal, and state officials would be able to seize all information retaining to the web activities of anyone identified as a person of interest in any criminal investigation, regardless of the crime involved. In fact, based on how broadly the law has been written and conceptualized, it appears that even attorneys litigating civil disputes involving “crimes” such as divorce or insurance fraud may be able to get access to this information.
Helping the Police?
Some might claim that searches and seizures of Internet records are not unreasonable when a person is suspected of criminal involvement. But there are already two laws on the books that help police investigating wrongdoers digitally: the Electronic Communication Transactional Act of 1996 and the Protect Our Children Act of 2008. The former requires IP’s to retain Internet records for up to ninety days when requested to do so by the authorities, while the latter makes it obligatory for Internet providers themselves to report any information they have that would suggest that one of their customers may have been visiting a site connected to child pornography.
With this new law, everyone will be subject to an invasion of his or her privacy based on the speculation that maybe someday all of us will commit some kind of crime. No one can guarantee that this information will be kept private when it is being preserved, nor can it be guaranteed that law enforcement agencies will always act responsibly when requesting access. Many critics of government and society have been subjected to police harassment in the past, and a law that is as broadly conceived as this one will make this kind of action much easier to get away with.
Protecting Our Children from State Despotism
The Fourth Amendment was added to the Bill of Rights because the founders wanted to make sure that the privacy of citizens could be protected from authorities who might be willing to sanction a trampling of people’s rights if they believed they were serving some “greater good.” Those who are behind the Protecting Children from Internet Pornography Act should be ashamed of themselves for hiding behind such an incendiary name that is clearly designed to manipulate emotions and intimidate civil libertarians who oppose this bill. But most importantly, their attempt to trash the spirit and the intent of the Fourth Amendment should be rejected and rejected forcefully. If this law is passed, it would give the government permission to violate our rights of privacy indirectly by allowing them to use Internet providers as unwilling proxies in their cynical and unconstitutional attempt to turn the United States into a society where Big Brother is always watching.
©2011 Off the Grid News