Friday, September 26, 2014

You may not know it, but you could easily be on a government watch list for individuals who pose a terrorist threat.  I know; I know. It’s laughable to you that you and your infant child and overworked spouse or partner  may be a threat to humanity as you board a plane to go see your in-laws that you probably don’t want to see anyway. But your name may be front and center on a watch list. In fact, hundreds of thousands of ordinary American citizens have made the “blacklists.”

But have you heard of whitelists? These are the lists of certain Americans, such as legislators, Senators, judges, Defense Department employees, Homeland Security advisors, national intelligence workers and others who are eligible for expedited screening at airports, simply by virtue of the nature of their employment.  The assumption seems to be that no one who occupies any of these positions could ever snap and put a bomb in his shoe.

The reality of our government watching every move we make, monitoring our behavior and deciding if we’re good guys or bad guys has gone awry.  Get this: The FBI uses the term “reasonable suspicion” to call attention to any American deemed even slightly risky. The problem is that such everyday things as a Twitter or Facebook post can pile the “reasonable suspicion” label on your shoulders for the rest of your life. I, for example, write this blog about sometimes rather controversial topics, and sometimes I take somewhat unpopular stands on issues that I feel are unjust. Over the past five years I have written pieces  about such topics as police overstepping their authority; the citizen movement for secession from the U.S.; judges who make rulings based on their personal biases; citizens who have been physical attacked by law enforcement  for videotaping arrests, and many others.  Does that make me “reasonably suspicious?”  I think not. It makes me one who honors the First Amendment to the Constitution.

Therein is the rub: You can exercise your rights in this country and easily be the subject of government scrutiny.  In July, the Associated Press reported that over the past five years, more than 1.5 million people have been added to the U.S. government’s terrorist watch lists. 
Really?  Well, you have to understand how easy it is go make the list. And once you’re on a list, other problems may confront you. If you are stopped for speeding, for example, the officer has the ability to tap into a database that indicates if you are on watch list. If you are on a list, the officer will many times dig a little deeper into your life, and that traffic stop that might have lasted 10 minutes turns into 30 minutes. I don’t know about you, but my boss isn’t real impressed when I show up 30 minute late for work.

What you also might not know is that if you’re on a watch list, screeners at the airport have the right to peruse your belongings in a much more invasive way. For example, they are allowed to look at the titles of any books you may be carrying.  So, if I’m carrying “The Communist Manifesto” by Karl Marx, and/or the Q’uran, and if I happen to have made the cut for a watch list because of my controversial views expressed in this blog, I can be detained. The guidelines for screeners also indicate that when looking at these books, they should examine the condition – “e.g., new, dog-eared, annotated, unopened." If you feel inclined to wade through the full guidelines, clickhere.

Meanwhile, just as our government continually upgrades its capacity and authority to peek into our private lives, so do other entities, such as credit card companies and insurance companies. Exhibit A: Have you seen those little credit card reading devices that mobile vendors use to accept your payment for services?  Some drivers of cars for hire use them, as well as landscapers, home improvement workers, etc. They swipe your card in the hand held device and have you sign with your finger and the transaction is complete. What you may not know is that not too long ago, the makers of Square Reader, a highly popular device quietly and unceremoniously sent a change of terms to vendors using their device.  The terms now read, in part:
“…you will not accept payments in connection with the following businesses or business activities; sales of firearms, firearm parts or hardware, and ammunition; or weapons and other devices designed to cause physical injury.”

So don’t look for a Square Reader at your local gun show. Did someone fail to mention to Square Reader that we have a little something called the Second Amendment, which clearly protects your rights to keep and bear arms? Is it just me, or are we teetering on a slippery slope here? What’s next? Should Square Reader stop accepting payments for soft drinks with lots of sugar, or cigarettes, or vodka, or marijuana in states where it is legal, or sex toys that offend some people?  Since when do makers of these modern day cash registers decide what everyday Americans can and cannot purchase?

Under my same “what the hell is going on” category, I’d mention subprime loans for cars. If you’re a responsible, well-healed citizen you may not be familiar with subprime loans. These are loans that are made to people who may be high risk for repaying, such as unemployed people or people with very low credit ratings, or people with a lot of debt or a history of sluggishly paying their debts. And yes, the interest rates are crazy high.

But now comes new technology that allows lenders to essentially control the vehicles for which they have loaned you money. It is an ignition device that the lender can activate if you’re late with one of your loan payments. They can disable your ignition from afar until you pay what you owe.  Not only that, a few days before your payment is due, the device begins to beep, and the beeps get louder and more frequent the closer you get to your payment due date. And there’s more: the devices have tracking devices, so that if you don’t pay your bill on time, the lender can easily and instantly find you. Perhaps they will find you in the middle of an Interstate highway, or on your way to a hospital to deliver a baby, or at a stoplight at a busy intersection, with cars behind you blasting their horns because you are unable to move your car. Watch:

Said one friend of mine in her ultimate wisdom, “Everybody and their brother is in our shit now.”

That brother she mentioned is “Big Brother.” As far back as 1977, a commission charged with examining privacy among U.S. citizens stated, “The real danger is the gradual erosion of individual liberties through automation, integration, and interconnection of many small, separate record-keeping systems, each of which alone may seem innocuous, even benevolent, and wholly justifiable.” Remember, this was pre-personal computing, pre- digital communication and pre-electronic tracking devices. How prescient.

In the meantime, citizens need to speak up about the loss of their rights, because history teaches us that once a right is lost in this country, it never comes back. Don’t we owe it to ourselves to  get “everybody and their bother” out of our shit, as my friend would say? I think we do. Our long-departed buddy, Benjamin Franklin said it this way:

“It is the first responsibility of every citizen to question authority.”

Just be prepared that when you indeed do question authority, you may quickly be added to some watch list, somewhere, and you may never, ever know it.

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