Op-Ed | Why the Patriot Act needs revision
Published: Tuesday, September 17, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, September 17, 2013 08:09
By now, most people know about the incarceration of the Japanese Americans during World War II. All the members of my family, on both my father’s and my mother’s side, were forcibly relocated to camps in Wyoming and Utah from their homes on the West Coast.
Day by day, knowledge of this past abuse of power is growing. What fewer people still realize is that another, smaller roundup occurred not months, but days, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Soon after news of the attack, the FBI came knocking on my grandfather Sashichi Inouye’s door. They came for him.
Had it not been for my father, who stood in the doorway and resisted the agents with arguments about civil rights, my grandfather probably would have joined hundreds of other community leaders, who were taken away that day and imprisoned for the duration of the War. Sometimes, a little resistance goes a long way.
Surely, the imprisonment of innocent people is troubling. But perhaps the most troubling aspect of this incident is the speed with which it happened. It takes more than a day or two after an incident like Pearl Harbor (or the bombing of the World Trade Center) to determine who the leaders of a given community are and where they are living. In the case of Pearl Harbor, the government would have had to have access to the data of the U.S. Census, and they would have been willing to use that information illegally. There is no other explanation.
I’m sure people back then were told, as we are now, that it was their duty to volunteer personal information: ages, family relationships, race, addresses. Surely, they were told then, as we are now, that this information would be protected and used properly.
When it comes to the usefulness of data, the temptation for abuse is too great to resist. With Edward Snowden’s recent disclosures, the secret is out. In response to the Patriot Act of 2001 (extended for another four years in 2011), the NSA has been gathering information illegally. Perhaps the biggest difference between 1941 and 2013 is only the level of dishonesty required to do so. Today, no one breaks a promise about what they might be learning about you because no one asks you for your information in the first place.
Our government simply takes what it wants, and we let it do this because we are patriots. Beyond being patriotic, we have also become habituated to a loss of personal control by the way we interact with each other. As consumers of goods and information, we allow the cookies embedded in the software we use to track our daily choices and habits.
Technology has no soul, but do technologists? Does our country’s famously rigorous engineering curriculum teach its students to think about what they are doing? Do arts and sciences students think about what they are doing?
Big data serves the hidden masters of both big government and big business as they operate with the blessings of Democrats and Republicans. The Clinton administration contributed to the erosion of personal freedom by allowing electronic surveillance to grow more efficient and widespread. The Bush administration encouraged the passing of the Patriot Act at a time of national vulnerability. The Obama administration now defends the NSA from criticism following the disclosures made by Edward Snowden and others.
Unless this issue matters to us, we can only expect that greater technological sophistication will only lead to greater challenges to personal freedom. Ironically, it was Dostoyevsky’s axe murderer Raskolnikov who waxed philosophically, “Happy people live without locks.” Back then, it was axe against lock. Today, it is algorithm against encryption. If our computers are incessantly asking us to provide passwords to lock up this or that data, why do we give our information so easily to organizations like the NSA, FBI, CIA, Google and Facebook?
If the abuse of power happens to one of us, it happens to all of us. Petition your representatives to revise the Patriot Act by requiring approved justifications for the electronic surveillance of both foreign and domestic persons and institutions. At this point in time, that is what we can reasonably expect.