January 18, 1999
Stopping the Surveillance State
New legislation halts privacy invasions
It was once commonly held that an external force was the greatest threat to the liberty of American citizens. Reality has proven that the greatest threat comes from within, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the growing surveillance state.
To challenge this, I recently introduced The Freedom and Privacy Restoration Act of 1999 (H.R. 220), legislation forbidding the federal government from establishing national ID cards or establishing any identifiers for the purpose of monitoring, overseeing, or regulating the private transactions between American citizens.
Perhaps the most important section of the legislation is the prohibition against using the Social Security number as an identifier. For all intents and purposes, the Social Security number is now a national ID. The use of the Social Security number has become so widespread that most Americans must produce a Social Security number to get a fishing license, and members of Congress must show their Social Security number in order to vote on the House floor.
One of the more disturbing abuses of the Social Security number is the rule forcing parents to get a Social Security number for their newborn children in order to claim them as dependents. Forcing parents to register their children with the government is more in line with the nightmares of George Orwell than the dreams of a free republic that inspired the nation's founders.
Another section of the bill will stop schemes such as the attempt to assign every American a "unique health identifier." This identifier would logically lead to a national database containing the detailed medical history of all Americans. As a practicing OB/GYN for more than 30 years, I know well the importance of preserving the sanctity and private nature of the physician-patient relationship. Oftentimes, effective treatment depends on the patient placing absolute trust in the doctor not to discuss with anyone her health problems. What will happen to that trust when patients know that all information given to their doctor must be placed in a government accessible database?
Some claim the federal government needs these powers to prevent criminal activity or to "protect" us from fraud committed against government health care agencies. Of course, monitoring the movements of every American to catch those few involved in illegal activity is a gross violation of the Fourth Amendment protection against search and seizure without warrants. The federal government does not have the right to treat Americans as criminals by spying on their relationships with doctors, employers and bankers. Likewise, since the federal government does not have the constitutional authority to operate health care agencies, the threat of fraud would evaporate with the end of these programs.
Many in Congress sincerely suggest that citizens' privacy could be protected through legislation restricting access to personal information, but the fact is that legislative "privacy protections" are inadequate. Recent history demonstrates that federal laws have not stopped unscrupulous officials from accessing supposedly protected information. Did laws stop the continuous violation of privacy by the IRS, or the FBI abuses by the Clinton and Nixon administrations? The Clinton Administration has even endorsed allowing law enforcement officials' access to health care information, in complete disregard of the Fifth Amendment.
The federal government lacks the constitutional authority to force citizens to adopt a universal identifier for health care, employment, or any other reason, and therefore doomed to failure is anything short of repealing laws that violate personal privacy.
While most members of Congress are not persuaded by the moral and constitutional reasons for embracing the Freedom and Privacy Restoration Act, they will consider the overwhelming opposition of the American people toward the government's prying eyes. My office has been inundated with calls from around my district, state and, indeed, the nation, encouraging my efforts to thwart these attacks on our privacy. On the other hand, I have yet to meet a taxpayer who wants the government to further erode their privacy.
Clearly, the American people want Congress to stop invading their privacy. Congress risks provoking a voter backlash if we fail to halt the growth of the surveillance state. National IDs and massive government databases are incompatible with a limited, constitutional government.