Thursday, December 09, 2004

Back Again

Well, it's been weeks since I did this. Blame it on the election - no, I wasn't depressed, particularly. I've been trying to get some work done again! Yes, I'm taking courses this fall, but that doesn't make me a student. Obsessing over news and tramping around Greenfield drumming up Democratic voters is no hobby for an up-and-coming academic.

But I can obsess a little bit, can't I? Friends and family have probably heard my famous airline story, which starts with me (with wife & two kids) grumpily boarding a long-delayed flight to my inlaws in November, 2001 and finding out that pillows and blankets were not available "for security reasons". Wife and I stare at each other with a silent look of "huh? what sense does THAT make?" and I say, with my usual total lack of tact and foresight: "Maybe they want us all to be alert so we can defend the plane if there's a hijacking." The stewardess rushes over - "Shhh! you can't say that word!". Now, I know I can't threaten, or even joke about threatening, or even joke about weapons. But I wasn't. There are words you can't say? George Carlin now has a "seven words you can't say in flight" routine? So anyway, I ask her nicely to tell me what the new rules are about what I can and can't say. There's more to the story, involving being hauled off planes and ID checks and men with guns and army fatigues, but let's not get too involved. Really, I should have just shut up to start with, stopped kvetching, and not caused trouble - did I mention this was Nov 2001?

What bugged me at the time was that I thought they should have at least told me their durn rule. After all, how can I follow it if I don't know what it is? if ignorance of the law is no excuse, and the law is a secret, I mean, what sense does that make? But after all, everyone at the airlines was worked up, about losing their jobs if nothing else. And it was November, 2001.

Turns out that three years later, the situation is still pretty much the same. A conservative congresswoman ran afoul of the TSA last month, when she asked to see the legal authorization for a pat-down search. So, they wouldn't let her fly. The article I cited notes:

in a qualitatively new development in U.S. governance, Americans can now be obligated to comply with legally-binding regulations that are unknown to them, and that indeed they are forbidden to know. This is not some dismal Eastern European allegory. It is part of a continuing transformation of American government that is leaving it less open, less accountable and less susceptible to rational deliberation as a vehicle for change.

Part of a disturbing trend, another part of which is the continuing erosion of any sort of privacy. Laser printers have been quietly augmented so that the government can find out what printer has produced what document:

Next time you make a printout from your color laser printer, shine an LED flashlight beam on it and examine it closely with a magnifying glass. You might be able to see the small, scattered yellow dots printer there that could be used to trace the document back to you...Governments, including the United States, already use the hidden markings to track counterfeiters.

Freedom of the press, right, that's in the Bill of Rights. But the ability to anonymously print a flyer and distribute it seems to be disappearing, if indeed it's not already gone. Say what you like, but remember, they're watching...

And who is being watched? I certainly support tracking counterfeiters. But it appears to me that our ability to observe - to infringe on privacy - is far outpacing our ability to hide - to protect privacy. I would have guessed the opposite would happen, technically. I think the upshot of all this is that we need to really, really watch the watchers. Are they looking out for bad guys? or spying on Quakers and peaceniks? it's up to all of us to make sure.