How Much Privacy Should Government Officials Have?
This is a fun question that a lot of politicians might not be prepared for. It would probably seem upside-down to them somehow. They'd think, Isn't it the government that decides how much privacy the people are allowed to have?
But asking how much privacy government officials should be allowed to have isn't just an amusing thought experiment; it would also advance conservative values, as it focuses on keeping politicians and the bureaucrats they appoint beholden to us.
Turning the tables on this discussion is also critical because some Republicans are losing their way on privacy issues. Just last March, Republicans in Congress voted to reverse a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) privacy rule that reopened the door for internet service providers (ISPs) to sell customer data. Sure, this was just a return to the status quo, but this vote prompted privacy advocates to openly talk about obtaining the congressmen's online activity and making it public as a punishment.
Some Republicans in Congress tried to talk this away with platitudes about "consumer choice" and "free markets." But, though the move was certainly pro-business, it is a leap to say letting local ISPs, many of which are monopolies, quietly sell peoples' web browsing histories nurtures consumer choice.
Leftists had a field day with this. It gave them the opportunity to cast Republicans as a party busy empowering Big Brother to line their campaign pockets. The Verge even printed the names of the congressmen who voted for the legislation alongside political donations the congressman received from companies in the telecom industry.
At the very least, Republicans should have established a legal way for consumers to opt out of having their data sold, as that would empower consumer choice. It might even lead to the creation of a more diverse marketplace. If you want online privacy, you might have pay for it with higher rates, but that would be your choice. But such market-driven and individual-empowering ideas didn't occur to Republicans. No wonder people see a blurring between the parties.
To put this in context, I found when I was interviewing hackers, computer-forensic investigators, cyber-warriors, and more for my book Kill Big Brother that such people are rarely deeply ideological. When pushed, they'll say privacy is freedom, but that isn't their chief motivating force. I didn't find any modern-day John Stuart Mills among them. They are cynical of power and control and get off on the world they can secretly navigate. Some have sketchy ethics; others have real values. What they have in common is a practical love of freedom coupled with a lack of knowledge about the basis of that freedom. This makes them – yes, even people who work in the technology fields – susceptible to the false narrative that Democrats will protect their individual rights.
They have noticed that, along this same theme, many Democrats have been calling for President Donald Trump to release his tax returns, as the Democrats badly want to get their hands on more information they can spin. This has made many Republicans pause, as it is President Trump's legal right to decline to feed the news cycle with the taxes he has paid and perhaps the loopholes he has used with regard to his complex financial holdings.
Fair enough, but this position is again allowing Democrats to seem like the party of transparency. The truth is that though Democrats are still howling about Trump's tax returns, they naturally didn't say the same thing about opening the Clinton Foundation's books. Nor did they argue we should be able to see the speeches Hillary Clinton made on Wall Street. The Democrats are being politically opportunistic with this issue, not the party of transparency. But Republicans often don't know how to talk about this modern issue, so again, they are losing young voters.
This really should be a conservative cause, as it places the individual above the state.
So how to do it?
We could begin by requiring those who file to run in any federal election to release their tax returns and other documents.
How much more? Now we're talking.
For starters, in this modern age, when politicians can make money buying or selling stocks and other securities related to an industry they regulate or are considering regulating, shouldn't we insist that they either stay out of the market or make their portfolios 100% public?
Anyone who has wondered how so many politicians somehow become millionaires while in office would like answers to just how they did it. Maybe what they did was perfectly legal, and maybe it wasn't, but shouldn't we have the right to quickly learn how they financially benefited from their public office? (Ballotpedia's "Personal Gain Index" does try to estimate how much each congressman's net worth changes while in office. The site estimates that the average member of Congress sees his net worth grow by just over 15% per year in office.)
Shouldn't we also insist that all normal (not classified) government records pertaining to politicians be made public in an organized way when they file with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to get power over us? For starters, these could include criminal records, driving records, military records, and those aforementioned tax returns. (Should this include medical records? Not in my opinion, as medical records are too personal and ever changing – we are all mortal.)
Legislation to modernize the election process could mandate that those seeking these offices obtain and deliver all of these public records to the FEC to be posted online in a searchable index. This would prevent these documents from simply being dug up and spun by various news organizations. Government service, after all, is a choice. If someone doesn't have the record or the personality to handle the scrutiny, then he shouldn't try to get power over us.
This would impact the media in an important way. It would give anyone with an internet connection easy access to the same information. This would equalize the playing field between journalists who are backed by the resources of big-media companies, such as the big urban newspapers that largely lean left, and those working for smaller outlets and blogs. Actually, this is one big reason why Democrats often outgun Republicans in the media, as the big urban news organizations have the staffs and resources to do this work and therefore to drive the narrative.
Sure, some in the media might argue that it's their job to vet the candidates for us, but come on: journalists as a group have hardly proven to be fair and neutral providers of information. And anyway, this wouldn't replace the media, but would simply give us these records in a more systematic way.
Such conservative positions would excite young voters who've been raised with smartphones in their hands and would help them to see the Republican Party as they should, as the party of freedom.
So have I gone too far? Not far enough? A public debate is important, as it would highlight what the Fourth Amendment really does protect. For example, a congressman's emails, phone calls, and more shouldn't be obtained without a warrant based on probable cause. If these are leaked, the leakers need to be prosecuted, not tolerated.
This is an important discussion for another big reason: right now, the U.S. government and private companies are quietly watching us. And they're getting better at it. Wouldn't it be better if we also had more ways to watch them without relying only on anonymous sources that drive the storylines and the political spin from CNN and more?
Frank Miniter is the author of Kill Big Brother, a book that Rich Lowry says is a "cyber-thriller that packs a political punch."