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.

In his book The Transparent Society, David Brin predicted that technological advances could lead to a world of great openness and transparency — provided that the citizens could monitor the government as closely as the government monitored the citizenry. This was Brin's solution to the classic problem, "Who watches the watchers?"

Unfortunately, the current trend is instead towards a system where the transparency is one way only — where the government can watch us, but not the other way around.

In the Internet era, the old saying "knowledge is power" is more true than ever before. Laws requiring citizens to divulge personal information to the government while denying citizens similar access to information about its operations thus threaten to give the government unprecedented power over ordinary Americans.

Fortunately, many Americans are fighting back. Organizations like the Institute for Health Freedom are warning against the privacy-violation implications of mandatory electronic medical records. Under public pressure, the Coast Guard rescinded its rules against covering the oil spill. The Maryland Supreme Court has ruled that wiretapping laws probably do not apply to citizens videotaping police traffic stops.

But while these are all steps in the right direction, the ultimate solution lies in promoting and defending the principle of properly limited government.

The American Founders established this country on the principle that a proper government should be constitutionally limited in its powers, with the purpose of protecting our individual rights.

As Ayn Rand once noted, under a properly limited government, "A private individual may do anything except that which is legally forbidden; a government official may do nothing except that which is legally permitted."

This means that in a free society, a private individual's actions are none of the government's business unless he violates someone else's rights by initiating force or fraud (or is a credible threat to do so). Similarly, government's actions should, in general, be open to routine public scrutiny as part of the citizens' right — and responsibility — to ensure that government officials are acting only within the scope of their constitutionally limited authority.

Hence, the government has no business collecting data on your blood pressure or your medication history. Nor does it have any business claiming blanket exemption from FOIA inquiries or preventing citizens from recording police officers in the public performance of their duties. (Of course, the government can and should protect the dissemination of information about legitimate police undercover operations or genuine national security secrets.)

Americans must demand government transparency as a corollary to the broader principle that a properly limited government should be our servant, not our master — as the Founders intended. Otherwise, rather than living in a "transparent society," we'll find ourselves in a perpetual "interrogation room society" -- like criminal suspects under constant police observation from behind a one-way mirror.

Is this the kind of America we want?