Governments thrive on information
about people. Personal information allows governments to serve their citizenry
better, to collect taxes, and to enforce laws and regulations. But governments
stand in a very different position to personal information than businesses
or individuals. Governments have the power to take and use information
without permission. And there is little recourse against
governments when they use information in ways that are harmful or objectionable.
The position of governments in relation to the privacy
of citizens should be carefully examined.
In the modern welfare state, governments use copious amounts
of information to serve their people. Any program designed to help citizens
requires fairly large collections of information. A program to provide
medical care, for example, requires the government to collect a beneficiary’s
name, address, telephone number, sex, age, income level, medical condition,
medical history, providers’ names, and much more. The Social Security number
was created so citizens
could receive government benefits. Its adoption as a standard personal
identifier has added to the list of information that people must guard
Governments also use personal information to collect taxes.
This requires massive collections of information without regard to whether
an individual views it as private: name, address, phone number, Social
Security number, income, occupation, marital status, investment transactions,
home ownership, medical expenses, purchases, foreign assets. The list is
very, very long.
A third use government makes of personal information is
to investigate crime and enforce laws and regulations. Governments’ ability
to do these things correlates directly to the amount of information they
can collect about where people go, what they do, what they say, to whom
they say it, what they own, what they think, and so on. We rely on government
to investigate wrongdoing by examining information that is often regarded
as private in the hands of the innocent. It is a serious and legitimate
concern of civil libertarians that government collects too much information
about the innocent in order to reach the guilty.
The incentives that governments have all point toward greater collection
and use of personal information about citizens. This predisposes them to violate
privacy. A patchwork of privacy laws do purport to protect citizens, but they
often prove insufficient. Governments remain the most voracious collectors,
consumers, and sometime abusers of personal and private information.
Government Privacy Violators by James K. Glassman, Tech Central Station (July 24, 2000)
How Big Brother Began by Solveig Singleton, Cato Institute (November 25, 1997)