Transparency for Me, but not for Thee

When President Barack Obama took office, he pledged to make his administration "the most open and transparent in history." However, government officials are now demanding ever-increasing amounts of information about ordinary Americans, while preventing citizens from gathering similar information about government operations. If this ominous trend continues, this "transparency" will be in one direction only -- which bodes ill for the future of our republic.

One of the biggest new government data-collecting initiatives will be via the new mandatory electronic medical records, passed as part of last year's "stimulus" package. Starting in 2011, physicians and hospitals must start using electronic systems to record patient information such as blood pressure, smoking status, and current medications. Although these measures are being portrayed as "voluntary," they will be linked to escalating financial penalties that will make them de facto mandatory by 2015.

Furthermore, the Institute for Health Freedom warns: "Patients’ consent will not be required before personal health information is compiled in EHRs [Electronic Health Records] and exchanged electronically with many third parties including government agencies."

Nor can government promises of privacy necessarily be trusted. The Transportation Security Agency claimed that data from its new high-tech body scanners "cannot be stored or recorded." Yet as Declan McCullagh recently reported, the federal government has been surreptitiously storing tens of thousands of such images from a U.S. Marshals Service security checkpoint in Florida. In response, the TSA subsequently acknowledged that its scanners did have the capability of storing data — but that they would only use the recording function in "testing mode."

In the era of cheap mass storage, it is extremely easy to store data, whereas it takes work to delete it. Plus it is virtually impossible for ordinary citizens to know if their data is truly purged from government archives. As Glenn Reynolds observes, "Whenever the government collects information, it lies about what it will do with it. This is a near-universal law."

Yet while our government is demanding increasing access to our data, it is also trying to stop us from gathering information about it.

The Securities and Exchange Commission has just declared that under the new "financial reform" regulations, it no longer has to obey Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for public disclosure of its records. Nor is this trend isolated to the SEC. In 2009, major federal agencies claimed exemption from FOIA inquiries 70,779 times, up from the 47,395 times during George W. Bush's final year in office.

During the Gulf oil spill, the U.S. Coast Guard attempted to prevent television news crews from reporting on recovery efforts by threatening them with fines and criminal penalties.

State and local law enforcement officials have routinely stopped ordinary Americans from taking photographs of public buildings and events on the grounds of "domestic security." Police have arrested citizens videotaping them during the public performance of their law-enforcement duties on the grounds that it was in violation of wiretapping laws.