Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Coming Database State: The Importance of Being Unreasonable

Little India, Singapore

The U.S. government began this year to record and store information on all U.S. citizens who walk, drive or boat across a border into the United States, the Washington Post recently reported.

The new procedure is eminently reasonable -- which is why it must be opposed ferociously.

Under the rules, which were announced in an impenetrable Federal Register notice, Customs and Border Protection will log the name, gender and birth date of each citizen crossing into the U.S., as well as the date and time of the crossing and a photo (if available). The information is then stored for 15 years in a database called Border Crossing Information, the contents of which can be made available to other agencies, foreign governments and civil litigants.

In other words, your border crossings are about to become public information.

Still, on the surface, the procedure seems reasonable. U.S. citizens re-entering the country have the legal burden of establishing their citizenship, and returnees expect to have their documents scrutinized and, perhaps, recorded.

But "reasonable" regulation isn't. One of the great lessons of the last thirty years is that the American administrative state increases its power -- and steals our liberty -- in small, incremental steps, each of which seems reasonable at the time.

Smoking is the best example. The health fascists correctly observed in the early 1980s that there was no political consensus for a comprehensive smoking ban. So a war of attrition began: smoking was first banned on public transport, then in governmental offices, then in public accomodations, then in all private businesses, etc., etc., and now we're at the point where the ability to smoke in your home is about to be extinguished.

Each ban was limited, targeted and reasonable. But each moved the standard for acceptable government action, making the next prohibition seem logical, obvious and -- you know what word I'm about to use.

The border crossing database is itself a reasonable extension of a prior, ever-so-sensible regulation. Citizens have customarily been able to re-enter the U.S. from Mexico or Canada with an evidence of citizenship, such as a driver license or birth certificate. But this puts border officers in the admittedly impossible position of trying to identify forgeries among more than 50 state and territorial licences and the almost limitless number of forms of birth certificate. So the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative is in the process of requiring that all such crossings be conducted with a standardized passport (or certain other documents that require a passport). And now that all returning citizens will be required to present the little blue book, the government is taking the next reasonable step.

The goal of the health fascists is to ban all smoking, and they're 80% there. The goal of the federal government is to create a Database State, in which all actions and transactions by citizens and visitors are collected, stored and analyzed, a Panopticon beyond Bentham's imagination.

Tracking border crossings by citizens is a small, reasonable step toward that Database State.

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Blogger Tom Salemi said...

I agree with your overall point, but I'll toss my support behind the anti-smoking facists.

7:49 PM  
Anonymous moi said...

Interesting post. I've a couple of questions, though, which probably have to do with my ignorance, rather than lack of clarity in your post. First question: why do you say the ability to smoke in one's own home is about to be extinguished? And second, why does the photo caption say "Little India, Singapore"? Having been to neither Singapore nor the US-Canada border, I am confused.

On a separate note, the history of passports is worth exploring. As I understand, it was important for the British empire to establish whether individuals (the citizen status and rights of "native" subjects in the colonies were necessarily unclear) from one part of the empire had the right to be in another part. And for another thing, it was extremely important for the empire to control the mobility of labor -- to ensure it remained or went where it best served imperial aims. Race was, of course, a factor in who deserved to be doing what, where. As I understand, the order in which movement control mechanisms developed was tattooing, fingerprinting, and passports. I haven't read anything about name standardization but I wonder if passports have been instrumental in doing this by insisting on the name+surname format. Imperialists often considered themselves liberal, rational, and no doubt reasonable. It's just that "natives" appeared to them to be not amenable to these principles.

9:10 PM  
Anonymous Terrence's Wife. said...

singapore? paul get a goddam grip.

5:01 AM  

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