A Loser's Bet

August 6, 2008
Hardly anybody is talking about it in the American media, but the implementation of new regulations by the US Department of Homeland Security has made the nightly news in Russia two nights in a row, where it has been criticized as a "violation of human rights." The measures allow US customs agents to copy any and all data on people's electronic hard drives, and even confiscate people's computers.

To what depths have we sunk when Russian state television is able to chastise the US government--and rightly so--for its intrusions into people's personal freedoms?
In Russia, where the state and business are closely intertwined, concern about this law revolves mostly around the possibility it produces for commercial espionage. They have a right to be concerned. They also have the right to impose similar laws with respect to Americans entering their country. Countries impose reciprocal visa duties upon one another's citizens all the time--indeed, Russia just recently increased the cost of a Russian visa for Americans in response to the rising cost of American visas for Russians. Can reciprocity with respect to the invasion of privacy of travelers be far behind?
Apologists for the new regulations will argue, of course, that this applies only to people entering the country. After all, they say, when flying planes Americans regularly undergo searches they normally wouldn't be subject to.
But this has nothing to do with making planes safe. They're not checking your hard drive for explosives, but rather searching through and possibly copying your personal data. All of this, it is argued, is being done to make us safer in the long run--so that "terrorists" don't bring in data on their computers relating to attacks in the US.
Somebody ought to inform the Department of Homeland Security that it is possible to move data across borders by means other than simply carrying it by hand. Indeed, it's hard to believe that a would-be terrorist, having managed to receive a visa and enter the United States, would be willing to risk detection by carrying incriminating evidence through customs, regardless of what the rules for searching laptops are. Why take that risk when you can go to any computer terminal in the country, log on as 'guest,' and download your data electronically?
Regulations like this do absolutely nothing to make us safer. But when they are proposed, nobody wants to speak out against them. Any regulation, it is thought, no matter how ineffective, is still preferable to doing nothing.
I disagree. In the United States, we have a constitutionally guaranteed right to privacy against unwarranted searches of our homes, our papers, and our persons. Seven years after September 11--and after the Patriot Act and warantless wiretapping--our government is still invading our privacy and diminishing our civil rights.
The Democrats won major gains in Congress in 2006 at least in part because Americans are fed up with this kind of deep-state paranoia. But now it seems the Democrats are just too afraid of appearing soft on terrorism to make a stink about this issue--after all, most Americans hardly travel abroad anyway, especially this year with the dollar dropping by the week.
But it's a loser's bet for the Dems to keep trying to gain political power without first taking political risk--voters won't respect it, and in the absence of political leaders articulating the need for policy changes people will continue to view the Democrats as shaky on matters related to protecting the country. A change in mindset is indeed necessary, but the onus is on the Democrats to explain why that is so.
Issues pertaining to our constitutional rights do matter to people--even many (libertarian-leading) Republicans and certainly many independents have major problems with the Bush administration's approach to privacy issues. If Obama wants to expand his base, this is precisely the sort of issue he and the Democrats should be talking about.
This country has made all too many loser's bets over the past eight years-diminishing our civil liberties, destroying people's lives, and wrecking our economy in the process. My fear is that, in the absence of enough well-articulated explanations for why 'change' is truly necessary, Americans might just make another loser's bet this November.