Yesterday's mail brought a safety razor, a gift from those nice people at Gillette. I tried it out this morning, it is superior to my old one, and I will probably pay the extortionate price for replacement blades. But why, I wondered, were those nice people at Gillette thinking of me?
Then the penny dropped. I had used a shopper's card at Safeway or Giant to get discounts when I bought shaving cream, and the grocer had given, or more likely sold, my name to Gillette as a potential customer for expensive replacement blades.
Someone is always looking over your shoulder.
There are closed-circuit television cameras on the streets and in the stores. You are almost always under surveillance in public. At work, your boss can probably read your email correspondence and track your computer use, the only reason he doesn't being that the company is too cheap to hire the staff it would take to sift through the cascade of daily information.
So it should come as no surprise to learn that the National Security Agency has been spying on the populace. There are ample precedents. J. Edgar Hoover kept dossiers for years on people he thought suspicious, and it did not take much to arouse his suspicions. Some urban police forces maintained "red squads" for the same purpose. Illegal wiretapping used to be commonplace. Now, of course, thanks to secret decisions of a secret court, hardly any eavesdropping or surveillance will be illegal.
We used to be afraid of Communists, from A. Mitchell Palmer's "red scare" of 1920 to the height of the Cold War. Now we're afraid of Islamic terrorists, and once again we will allow our government agencies to do anything in the name of keeping us safe. The surveillance state picked up momentum under Harry Truman and has had bipartisan endorsement from presidents and Congresses ever since.* You can see that in Barack Obama's sturdy defense of the surveillance operations continued from the George W. Bush administration.
You can expect that any agency that has the power, the technology, to conduct surveillance on anybody and everybody, and has the official authority to do so, will likely observe few restraints. And, given secret decisions by a secret court, we have no idea what the restraints are or whether they are effective.
Question any of this and you will be called unpatriotic or asked what you're trying to hide.
I think that Mr. Justice Douglas was right to discern in the penumbra of the Constitution a right to privacy, because without that right, most of the others are empty. There ought to be space for each of us to be left alone in all the things that do no harm to others, to be ourselves without intrusion.
But that sense of privacy looks increasingly illusory. We surrendered part of it to Safeway and Giant for a quarter off the price of hamburger, and we have surrendered a much larger portion of it through the representatives we have sent to Congress for the past sixty-plus years.
No doubt they have our best interests at heart.
*Oh, forty years ago the Church Committee detailed abuses by the CIA, but that was a blip. I'm sure everything must be kosher today.