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Watching our privacy slip away like sand through our fingers

The seriousness of the current IRS debacle, to me, goes beyond the issue of agents throwing up roadblocks for the Tea Party and patriot groups – and even Billy Graham! – when they were applying for tax-exempt status. Agents were insidiously delving into those peoples’ personal business way beyond what was warranted.

Even more disturbing was the government’s seizure of phone records at the Associated Press, a clear interference with the freedom of the press and an act that smacks of intimidation. This is not just rhetoric; some reporters have said that barely a week after the revelation, some of their sources have started drying up. If they are so brazen to seize AP phone records, they must feel omnipotent, and it begs the question, what records will they decide to seize next?

That started me thinking about how we have lost – and in some cases, willingly relinquished – so much of our privacy, one piece at a time, in the last decade. I’m sure it was happening to a lesser degree before, but the spectre of Big Brother watching us was really ramped up following the terrorist attacks of 9/11. We rationalized it by telling ourselves it was making our country and ourselves safer – and it probably did.

But now we are being recorded in many aspects of our everyday lives – by stores’ cameras, on sidewalks, whule pumping gas and driving down the road and, even, in some cities, in our backyards by drones. This close scrutiny was illustrated by the pursuit and capture of the Boston Marathon bomber. We’ve all seen the numerous photos of him as he moved about the street prior to the explosion and hints of how the police tracked him through credit card use and other avenues.

I’m glad they caught that creep, but I recognized at the time that innocent people were being observed and recorded alongside him

. Indeed, private and commercial security cameras are responsible for a large part of us being watched as we go about our lives as law-abiding citizens.

And what’s really ironic is that we have rushed to help them observe us. We not only have accepted public surveillance camera, but we post photos and running accounts of our lives on Facebook. We use debit and credit cards that leave a clear trail of not only where we shop but what we buy, where we travel, where we eat. Same thing to an even higher degree on the Internet. Our every click on the keyboard is tracked and remembered. We like it when our favorite Internet sites comes up automatically or when ads pop up and show us things we’re interested in buying, but we probably haven’t given much thought to how much our computer – and Google and Amazon and thousands of other sites – know about us and our habits and how they know it. They know by tracking our surfing, our shopping, our activities and everything else we do. It’s no longer just Big Brother watching; it’s Big Data.

I was not aware until a recent news report of how much our personal data was used in last fall’s presidential election. Some political observers go so far as to credit the mining of personal data as the reason for Obama’s re-election. This is not an indictment of the Democrats; Romney’s people did the same thing but on a smaller and less efficient scale.

It seems that through the gathering of data from many sources, from the Internet to what we told political surveyors about ourselves on the phone, and in public government records, they were able to identify towns, neighborhoods, and, in many cases, individuals who were not committed to either party. They targeted these people through a heavier concentration of TV and direct mail ads in their market area slanted towards their concerns, and used phone calls where a live personal followed a script to discuss certain issues in an attempt to persuade them to vote for their candidate. They did nothing illegal; they simply concentrated their money and efforts on swing votes they knew could make a difference. The Obama campaign trounced the Romney people in this practice, and it paid off big time.

The extent of the data they had on some people was chilling. And now Big Brother seems on the verge of taking Big Data to the next level. And Big Data knows a lot more about everyone than Big Brother ever dreamed of knowing.

A huge federal data center, the Intelligence Community Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative Data Center, is being built 25 miles of Salt Lake City. The National Security Agency, which will lead operations at the facility, is the executive agent for the Director of National Intelligence. The NSA acknowledges that the $1.5 billion-dollar/one million square-foot facility will house a critical data center. Some observers believe it will store data collected on Americans across the board.

Undeniably, the facility will have the capability to gather information about everyone: from everything they buy (through debit and credit cards and bank records), everywhere they go (through cell phone tracking), everything they post on social media, everything they say in emails and every website they visit – and hold that information indefinitely if they wish. The feds deny it is going to be a “spy center.” Can we believe them?

The federal government has proved time and again that they don’t know how to observe boundaries. That’s why this data center in Utah concerns me; if it’s not a domestic spy center now, what’s to stop it from going that way?

Two of our most treasured rights as Americans have been the right to privacy and the right to be left alone. Instead of citizens demanding that those rights be preserved, we are cooperating with the people who may be taking them away. I fear our privacy, and subsequently our freedom, is slowly but surely eroding, and I don’t have an answer about how to stop it. Trying to stem the erosion could be like trying to grasp wet sand on the beach as the tide pulls it away and it slips from between your fingers.

Whatever it’s mission is, it’s scheduled to be and running by September.

Helen Wale Turner, Editor

Send your questions, comments or suggestions to helen@livingstonbusiness.com.