Secure This

Just when I was starting to think he might be dead, Dick Cheney popped up to make a statement about the brewing national security letter brouhaha. It is reassuring to know both that the Vice President is alive and that government inspection of my financial records is not illegal. The headline of the article is actually a bit misleading—the issue is not over credit checks as much as it is over seizing financial records, library records, and records from your isp.

Given the large number of people who have lines of credit through the government (including me, and almost everyone who has taken out loans to go to college), I do not have a problem with the government periodically requesting a credit report on me from Experian, TransUnion, or Equifax. This is industry standard for companies that offer lines of credit, especially if you are requesting a larger line of credit, a smaller monthly payment, or any other changes to your account. Keeping an eye on credit reports ensures that a lender doesn’t get burned by a bad debt, and the terms of most lines of credit include a stipulation that your credit will be investigated.

What I do have a problem with, however, is the idea of the government looking at my financial records, which I was under the impression were meant to be private. The government can know how much I owe on my credit cards, but what the money was spent on is not the government’s business, unless I am an active suspect in an ongoing case. If I am suspected of a murder, it’s not unreasonable to think that my financial records might be investigated to see if I bought poison. But if I’m living my daily life, the things I use my credit card for are my own business, and no one else’s.

I’m even more uncomfortable with the thought of my checkout history at the library being released without my knowledge (for one thing, my secret reading vices would be revealed), or with the idea of my internet browsing records being readily available as well. I already operate under the assumption that nothing I do is truly private, but I like to maintain the fantasy of some personal space.

The most disturbing thing about national security letters, to me, is that they are accompanied with a gag order. This means that if the government were to approach Comcast, Washington Mutual, or the San Francisco Public Library and request my records, I would have no way of knowing. The organization holding the records cannot inform me that they have been requested, and whether or not they have been released. And most organizations do comply with national security letters—the stakes of not doing so are too high.

Yet, I don’t see information about national security letters being disclosed when I open a new account. No where on my banking paperwork does it state that my banking records can be seized and examined by the federal government without my knowledge. Librarians do not mention it when I come to the counter with a stack of books I’d like to check out. While I have known about the use of national security letters by the government for quite some time, other individuals may not be aware that their records are not safe. This seems like a breach of trust between client and company, in my eyes.

Whether or not the letters are even being used legally is another debate, and it sounds like the House Intelligence Committee intends to examine the use of national security letters. Certainly their use within the United States by the Central Intelligence Agency is questionable, since the CIA ‘s focus is on international espionage, not domestic law enforcement. Part of the reorganization undergone by major goverment agencies after the 11 September attacks includes cooperative agreements. These agreements are fairly clear: if the CIA wants information on American citizens, they need to get it through the Federal Bureau of Intelligence, not on their own.

We have a series of checks and balances on obtaining personal information because there is an illusion of privacy in this country. There’s a reason you need a warrant signed by a judge to search a home, for example. In the past, law enforcement who were interested in obtaining financial records needed authorization to do so: in today’s Pentagon, it’s just a supervisor’s signature away. We trust the financial firms we deal with to guard our information, and yet they appear to be doing nothing to protect us.

I’m glad to see the story breaking with several major news agencies: perhaps it will rile up the citizens enough that something is actually done about it.

[national security letter]