This session of the 111th Congress has been one that will go down in infamy by virtue of its assault on privacy and other civil liberties. Several of these problematic provisions have not yet made it to President Barack Obama’s desk, but in today’s political environment, resisting them will be difficult. Many in the Congress still tremble as a result of the Times Square bombing attempt; even as many also remain gripped by the hysteria surrounding the as-yet unproven Toyota rogue acceleration problem.
The latest civil liberties victim of Times Square Brainiac Faisal Shahzad’s feeble attempt at terrorism fame is the pre-paid cell phone. This innocuous device, available now to virtually anyone wishing to buy a cheap cell phone useable for a limited period, represents perhaps the last opportunity for a person to communicate anonymously. Yet, these devices are being targeted for extinction by a pair of United States Senators simply because the failed Times Square bomber used one in his preparatory activities; and law enforcement discovered this not because the purchase of the cell phone was recorded in an accessible database, but because Shahzad made at least one call to a number already on a government list of suspected terrorists.
Democratic New York Sen. Chuck Schumer now has teamed with his Republican colleague from Texas, John Cornyn, and introduced a bill that would employ the heavy hand of federal law to prohibit anonymous cell phones. Leaving aside the question of where the Congress finds authority in the Constitution to do this, it is certain that many of their colleagues will jump at this latest chance to prove they are as tough on terrorists as the next guy, whatever the cost to the rest of the citizenry.
While Sens. Schumer and Cornyn may believe that the only people who purchase prepaid cell phones are terrorists, the fact is, many average, law-abiding citizens use such devices regularly. Some people do so because they may not have the funds or the creditworthiness to buy a cell phone with a network plan. Others may do so precisely because of the anonymity such phones offer; something especially important for journalists to be able to protect communications with their sources from being revealed.
No matter to Schumer or Cornyn. To prevent one possible bad guy from purchasing a single prepaid cell phone, they’ll use their power as senators to prevent anyone from having one.
The Times Square incident is not the only reason the Congress is seeking to curb the rights and privacy of all Americans. The hysteria resulting from last spring’s Toyota recall has energized the Congress to accelerate a move to require “black box” computers in every new car sold in America. This legislation, which was recently passed out of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and is likely fast-tracked for an election-year floor vote, not only will add to the cost of a new vehicle but raises a host of privacy problems for the owners and drivers of such vehicles.
In typical fashion, the House committee left it up to bureaucrats at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to decide what information the black boxes will monitor and record. The actual owner of the vehicle will not know what information about his car or his driving is being recorded, or who will have access to the data.
In perhaps the most outrageous assault yet on Americans’ civil liberties this Congress, the House recently voted (with no Democrats and only 32 Republicans opposed) to greatly expand government’s ability to forcibly collect DNA samples from persons simply arrested for alleged criminal behavior. The measure does this by giving taxpayer monies to any state that passes a law doing the federal government’s bidding in this regard.
One shudders to contemplate what the next Congress will do to match or exceed the anti-civil liberties record of this one.