RALEIGH — As the nation debates the federal government’s warrantless surveillance of phone records, Americans don’t seem sure what to think about the balance between their privacy and national security.
A recent Rasmussen poll showed 59 percent of respondents opposing the National Security Agency’s program. When a Pew poll put the question a bit differently, focusing on investigating terrorist threats, 62 percent were OK with intrusions into personal privacy.
President Obama, meanwhile, defended the surveillance by noting that no one’s calls are being listened to and that names are not part of the data being collected.
Privacy experts’ response: So what? A phone number acts as a personal identifier, and it becomes easy from that point forward to track every individual’s movement based on that identifier and your cellphone’s tracking capabilities.
On the other side of the debate, defenders of the program note that citizens already provide personal information to the government, often to access services, whether it is personal health-care information or personal finances to the Internal Revenue Service.
But Jameel Jaffer of the American Civil Liberties Union pointed out in The New York Times last week that we typically “share discrete categories of information with specific categories of people for narrowly delineated purposes.” The IRS, for example, is forbidden by law from sharing much of your tax information.
But what if, when it comes to collecting the data, national security wasn’t at risk?
What if the questions involved government collecting and compiling data on you, the citizen, because those making the law believed it would further other ends of government, like determining the effectiveness of school programs or finding parking-ticket scofflaws?
Is that a good enough reason to take all your contacts with government and allow them to be sorted and compiled for any purpose under the sun?
State lawmakers in North Carolina seem to think so.
Last year, they approved the creation of something called a longitudinal database to study cohorts of residents, based on their contacts with state government, for any reasons dreamed up by researchers.
At least the point of that database is benign, and there are safeguards against the release of individual information.
Another database, called the state business intelligence center – it might be renamed the Government Data Analytics Center – has been in the making for the last two years. It could end up tracking individuals across state agencies with the idea of detecting people committing fraud or failing to pay parking tickets.
Provisions included in the state Senate’s budget bill would give the overseers of the database powers not typically granted to government bureaucrats to access the data. That power would be granted even though some provisions appear to run afoul of state and federal privacy laws, particularly as they relate to the use of Social Security numbers.
The attitude of state lawmakers seems to be that because this is state government’s information, they can do with it what they please.
If good people stand idly by and let them, they are probably right.
Scott Mooneyham is a syndicated columnist who writes about state government and politics.