Monday, November 28, 2005

"Caught in the Patriot Act": Tomorrow Evening

For those who want to learn more about the pros and cons of the Patriot Act, the Libertarians at the UW are hosting an event tomorrow, Tuesday at 6:00pm at the HUB Auditorium. The keynote speaker is Norm Stamper, former Seattle Chief of Police, and several student groups will be fielding speakers as well, including the Muslim Student Association and the College Republicans. It should be an informative event, and especially topical as the Patriot Act renewal comes under fire for its broad enfringements on civil liberties.

The event is free to UW students, $2 for the general public. Seating begins at 5:30pm.

More on the Libertarians at UW website

25 comments:

PubliusRex said...

Perhaps you can dispel for me confusion I've had for some time about one of the common complaints about the Patriot Act. I have heard people complain that records of the library books that they check out can be recovered by the government. I don't understand this complaint.

Why would there be any expectation that one could borrow a book from the government without the government having any awareness of the title of the book you borrowed?

PubliusRex said...

...I mean to say, last I checked libraries were government funded operations...

Cato said...

Publius,
I don't think there's any confusion, I think there are just different opinions about what it's appropriate for the government to know about individuals' reading habits. I don't particularly want the government to know what I'm reading, especially since we've seen abuses in the past, during the Cold War era (I picked up my copy of the Communist Manifesto at a yard sale for just that reason). I don't care whether it's a government funded library or not. Obviously Congress has the power to set such rules for public libraries (not private ones, in my opinion), but that doesn't mean they should do so.

The biggest concern about the library sections of the Act, for me (and most other civil libertarians, I think), is the fact that the library isn't allowed to let you know that your records have been accessed, or indeed that any record at the library has been accessed. Not allowing the public to know when government is using its coercive power is a sure step towards totalitarianism.

If I really thought the new powers would be used only to fight terrorism and used only against terrorists, I wouldn't have such a visceral reaction. But I think history bears out an opposite conclusion: Every time the executive is granted more power (especially power it can use in secret), it tends to abuse that power.

Bottom line: I don't trust the government with my library records for the same reason I don't trust the government with my guns. The reason: One of the primary purposes of the books I read and of the guns I own is to protect me from the government. Talk about handing the burgler the keys to your house...

SirWhoopass said...

I agree with Cato on this one. Furthermore, I believe we are in a new era when it comes to privacy issues. Previously, most records (of any nature) were kept on paper. This made it difficult to search and gather information about an individual. Even those records that have been on computers were on individual, usually incompatible, database systems.

Records are now being stored almost entirely electronically, and the ability to gather information and cross-reference systems is increasing. This can lead to alarming possiblities. In a recent well-publicized story, a man in Southern California sued a grocery store where he tripped and fell. The store countered by threatening to release his sales history (which reportedly included a lot of alcohol purchases) if he proceeded with the suit.

To me, the issue goes beyond release and to restricting the collection in the first place. Why does a library need a record of every book you have checked out? It only needs to know what books you have out until you return them.

Orrin Johnson said...

I think the Patriot Act is overly demonized, but I agree that the library book part goes a little too far. On the other hand, books are so cheap, the internet so full of (especially political) information, and private used book stores so plentiful that I think people have alternatives if they don't want the government to subsidize their reading lists (as Cato's own example amply demonstrates). I'd vote to exclude that provision, but I don't think it's unconstitutional.

I should point out, though, that the grocery store case involves two private parties, one of which agreed to make his purchase records available to the store in exchange for discounted prices. I don't have any problem with that, except insofar as evidence rules regarding prejudice and relevance apply to that particular case.

PubliusRex said...

If you don't want the government to know what books you read, don't borrow books from the government. I would agree with your concern to the extent that the government would be tipping over book stores to find out who is buying what.

SirWhoopass said...

My problem with Orrin's and Publis' argument is that there really aren't many discretionary alternatives.

Your internet browing is stored in any number of places on your computer. Even if you clear the cache and deny cookies your ISP still knows all the sites you've been to, and they keep logs (the site also keeps logs of your IP address). This is what the RIAA uses to target people who distribute music illegally (I'm not defending music "swapping", only pointing out that the same technology that fights it means it isn't hard to tell what web sites you've been reading).

Section 501 of the Patriot Act also allows the federal government to get copies of sales records from book stores (or any store, for that matter). Amazon knows all the products you've bought. Nearly every company has sales records, which can be tied to credit card and check transactions. The Act also prohibits the retailer from telling you that the government asked for the records.

So, what we're down to, is that you can get a book anonymously only if you pay cash at a retailer where it is already in stock.

SirWhoopass said...

Oops. Section 215, not 501. My mistake.

PubliusRex said...

I am not sure your latest response addresses the library issue.

SirWhoopass said...

It had been suggested that the library issue was irrelevant because there were many other options to obtain books without the government knowing what you read. My point was that, really, isn't true.

Yes, you can pay cash at garage sales for used books. But that sort of limits one's reading list to old Danielle Steele novels.

PubliusRex said...

So you agree that the library aspect, standing on its own, is nonsensical?

Orrin Johnson said...

I didn't know about the book store provision. Funny how it's the library part that gets focused on. I think that's clearly an undue imposition on the press, but stand by my belief that the library provision is allowable, even if I disagree with the policy.

Computers can be different, though - is participatin in a chatroom discussion regarding details of a terrorist plot speech, or an action? I think it's more of an action, and don't see any more problem with the government (with a warrant) searching those records than with them tapping a phone.

SirWhoopass said...

I could live with the library provision, all by itself, if that were the case. But it isn't.

I wouldn't say it is "nonsensical". I would much prefer a society in which the library (even a government funded one) did not keep historical records what people had checked out. And the government did not feel it needed to secretly obtain those records.

They who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security, deserve neither liberty or security

Orrin Johnson said...

What - you can quote Ben Franklin but we can't quote Ben Kenobi?

Since the Constitution doesn't provide for public libraries in any way, much less mandating them as a public right, they're pure gravy - NOT an essential liberty.

SirWhoopass said...

I agree, public libraries aren't an essential liberty. And, as noted, I could live with the library provision by itself. I do not think, however, that it is a great idea. Perhaps I should pose the opposite question.

Instead of arguing as to what great harm is done by the provision, can anyone give good evidence of anything useful that would come of it? That it is a critically important power the government needs? Is the default position to toss away any freedoms/liberties that aren't strictly protected by the Constitution?

Certainly one can invent some specific scenario where Dr. Evil is thwarted because the FBI got his library records. Is it likely? Have we really gained anything, as a society, by this?

Orrin Johnson said...

And on that we agree, which is why I think it's bad policy. My objection to the argument against the library provision is that it is NOT an "essential civil liberty". The debate should center more on the efficacy of the policy, not on its morality or Constitutionality. Ironically, I think a lot of Patriot Act opponents undercut their good arguments by making an "end of all freedom and the Constitution" argument against the entire law.

PubliusRex said...

"Is the default position to toss away any freedoms/liberties that aren't strictly protected by the Constitution?"

Depends who you ask. Some people (see the 2nd amendment blog posts) would even cut into those that ARE protected. I do not favor that default position. As a general matter, I favor smaller government.

But at the same time, I don't mind the government paying attention to the books that people are borrowing from them. I also don't think we should be strip searching 90 year old grandmas at airports either.

Orrin Johnson said...

Cato - I know you went last night. What did you think? Are we as fascist as people think?

Cato said...

I had to leave after only three of the five speakers, because of a prior engagement. I'm pretty sure we're as fascist as people think. The MSA speaker (the Imam) was pretty strident and let himself get sucked into a Pearl Harbor argument by a questioner. It was too bad, too, because I agreed with almost everything he said, he just came off as really extremist.
The ACLU and Dem guys were a bit less sensationalist, and the ACLU guy made some really good points about the actual effect of the Patriot Act, which is to make us feel less secure in our civil liberties. Even if we haven't lost rights and even if we aren't being surveilled, Patriot Act style legislation and National Security apparati make us less sure of what we can say or do in criticism of the government. Can we be wire-tapped, have our houses searched swat-team style or be detained without charges for speaking out against the government? Hard to say. But the fact is that we're thinking about it now, when it would have been unthinkable for the last couple (post cold war) decades. Which means there are people out there who might not speak up for fear of being persecuted who wouldn't have had that fear before. That might be the greatest loss to America from the act.

Just so we know what sort of numbers we're dealing with here: 30,000 National Security Letters a year. Before the Patriot Act it averaged about 300 a year.

PubliusRex said...

Could you please elaborate on the "Pearl Harbor" debate that ensued?

Also, did anyone actually speak in favor of the PatriotAct? It always amazes me how much negative publicity the Act gets when you consider that it passed and was renewed (?) by Congress by a large majority (if I am not mistaken). There seems to be a disconnect.

Orrin Johnson said...

While there are some liberties in danger, I have to object that anyone is feeling as if they "can't speak out against the government." If that were true, the speakers at the rally already would have been arrested. The continued vast increase of critical websites, books, blogs, etc. against the Bush Administration in general (without Molly Ivans being arrested yet) convinces me that those concerns are blown WAY out of proportion.

That's to be distinguished, of course, from ACTUAL threats against the country or the government made in statements, which have never been, nor should ever be, protected.

SirWhoopass said...

Minor point... the act has not yet been renewed. Negotiations fell apart before the Thanksgiving break. The Senate does not convene again until the 12th of December.

Cato said...

Publius,

Not much of a debate, just proposing conspiracy theories. The random audience member and the Imam both think the buildings were already laced with explosives (by us) before hand, as evidenced by the fact that they :insert some technical description here: when they got hit by the planes.

As far as the negative publicity in the face of almost unanimous passage and probable renewal: It just goes to show that congresspeople are 1. easily swayed by fear and the executive branch and 2. aren't particularly representative anyway. Look to the fact that the Senate UNANIMOUSLY passed the Real ID Act. Do you think that most americans want a National ID Card? No, it was piggy-backed on an Iraq spending bill. If you want a description of how Americans really feel, look to the opinion polls, not Washington D.C.

PubliusRex said...

Conspiracy attributed to right: They want to create a police state.

Conspiracy attributed to the left:
They want to create a socialist/communist state.

I'll leave it to you to comment on which we're closer to.

Cato said...

Can't we do both?