Jim Hightower

To get a job these days, chances are you’ll have to pee in a bottle. Every company with a credit card, store card or website — or even a clerk who asks you nosy questions at the checkout counter — is looking to peddle “data” about your buying habits. In many states, you have to hand over your fingerprints to renew your driver’s license. Public and private spaces alike are constantly scanned by ever more observant surveillance cameras.

When we’re asked for our Social Security number to open a bank account, many of us simply shrug our shoulders rather than raising hell. And if we happen to be poorer than a banking customer — a footloose kid hanging on a street corner or an unemployed motorist guilty of “driving while black,” for example — we’re liable to be locked up and lost in a vast criminal “justice” system that considers itself not responsible for any rights, especially privacy rights.

Invasion of our privacy has become a way of life. When you stand up and demand to be left alone, you’re likely to be pegged as a quaint holdover from days gone by, a whiner or, more likely, someone with something to hide — maybe even a terrorist! We’re living in a culture in which individual rights have been sold and subjugated, all for database marketing and to keep the lid on the unruly masses.

This is an issue that has fallen off the political radar. What are the chances that privacy rights will engage the mighty intellects of The Donald? Last I looked, the only people in Washington overly concerned with privacy were the corporate check writers and their pet politicians, eager to cover the tracks of their own financial quid pro quos.

Behind the shiny glass doors of your not so friendly, not so neighborhood bank, everything they know about you is for sale — your account numbers, bank balance, loan history, address, credit history, Social Security number. The checks you write and receive, the invoices you pay and the investments you make reveal as much about you as a personal diary. But instead of banks keeping your information under lock and key, they collect it, cross-reference it, collate it and sell it — mostly to companies determined to sell you something else. The banks get 20% to 25% of the sales revenue generated by the marketers who buy the information.

In the brave new culture built around the marketplace, both corporate and government sectors have deemed private and personal information to be just another commodity. Already, our Social Security cards, which were never meant to be a tool for anything but our security, have become a basic means of keeping track of us, for both marketers and the police.

But now, driven by dreams of a citizen databank available to government at every level, public officials are falling over each other with new proposals for keeping us tabbed. The International Association of Chiefs of Police wants DNA samples from anyone who is arrested for any reason (as opposed to tried and convicted), while some right-wing politicos want to take DNA samples from all newborns.

Filing our DNA in a government databank is about the ultimate in unreasonable search and seizure. How far we have come from the days of Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis, who said in his famous dissent in Olmstead v. United States (1928): “The makers of our Constitution ... sought to protect Americans in their beliefs, their thoughts, their emotions and their sensations. They conferred, as against the Government, the right to be let alone — the most comprehensive of the rights, and the right most valued by civilized men.”

And now there are companies like 23andMe that not only collect your DNA for genetic testing but will sell your DNA to government agencies. DNA tracking is not just an assault on the principles embodied in our Constitution; it has very real and frightening implications. Employers could deny you a job because your genes include a tendency toward certain diseases or health defects, and insurers might use DNA-derived information to impose limits on your health care coverage.

And don’t get me started on the tech companies and what they are doing with the overwhelming amounts of data they are collecting. Ah, for the simpler days of 1984, when George Orwell imagined that all this high-tech snooping and file gathering would be used to spot and snuff out society’s troublemakers and dissenters before they threatened the system.

Jim Hightower is a columnist, political activist and author who served as commissioner of Texas Department of Agriculture.

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