What Have You Got to Hide?

  • by Pete O'Brien
  • 10-25-2021

There was a very entertaining movie made in 1967 that was a satirical attempt to “tap” into the growing paranoia that the “Government” was spying on Americans. The movie was “The President’s Analyst, and the evil antagonist in the movie was “TPC,” “The Phone Company,” a huge, all knowing, omnipresent technological marvel that worked hand-in-glove with the government. When the Russian spy asked, “Are you telling me every phone in the country is tapped,” the answer was a resounding “Yes."

How far we’ve come in 54 years.

There’s a debate swirling around us as to what powers the social media companies ought to exercise over the material that appears in their various mediums. These companies can monitor virtually everything individuals say and do in these various mediums. And, they want to.

As has been pointed out, these platforms are privately owned. Some assert that  therefore they have a carte blanche to set and enforce rules of use. If they want to monitor what you’re doing or saying, or, in the case of the software platforms that are used to search the internet, to record what you’re searching for, what you’re reading, etc., they have every right to do so. In fact, their income is derived from such knowledge. 

But that just scratches the possibilities. If the search engine you use, that is to say, if the people who run the search engine you use, were to decide that certain sites are taboo, for whatever reason, you’ll find yourself unable to access them. 

At first blush, that doesn’t seem all that bad. If a would-be terrorist were prevented from accessing an al Qaeda web site, that would be a good thing, wouldn’t it?

And if the corporation then reported to the FBI that the names and addresses of those who were trying to reach the al Qaeda web site? That would be okay, too, right?

Well… Maybe not if you were just doing a term paper for school.

In the analog world of a few decades ago it would be impossible for a phone company to monitor every phone line, so they didn’t. And, of course, it was, and remains, against the law for the police or other government agencies to monitor an American’s telephone line without court approval, without a warrant. (That obviously can be abused, but that’s a subject for another time.)

But, in the digital age, with the ability to monitor, and record, tens of millions of phone calls (cell phones, smart phones), and tens millions of users on the world wide web, that power is in the hands of the various service providers. And the service providers are working with the government.

Phone calls can be monitored, texts can be read, web sites visited will be remembered, emails can be read - all by machine. Words that are objectionable to those owning the software can be flagged. What’s next? Will you find yourself on some sort of corporate watch list? Will the FBI get the list?

In a world where everyone seems to have enough stress from one end of the day to another, it is tempting to respond with the defense of the righteous: I’ve got nothing to hide. I don’t care what they see or hear or read.


In a world where there were only a small number of clearly stated laws and derivative government regulations, that argument might have some merit. This would presume, of course, that there are no corrupt police, no corrupt government agencies, and no corrupt politicians.

But what about the real world?

Begin with the number of laws on the books. In the early 1980s the Justice Department, in an attempt to understand the problem, spent two years studying federal law - just federal law. They found criminal offenses under 50 different titles of federal law, covering more than 23,000 pages of text, totaling more than 3,000 criminal offenses. And these are federal only.

Since 1982 the number of federal laws has climbed just a tiny bit…

And this doesn’t begin to address the tens of thousands of federal regulations that can cause just as much or more trouble than federal law. 

And the corporation that owns the paths over which your data is moving? What if they decide they don’t like some certain thing? Pit bulls are evil! Anyone who owns a pit bull is evil! They can’t use our system! Now, substitute fire-arm for pit bull. In fact, substitute anything at all. 

The company is going to collect data; every key stroke, every sweep of your finger across a screen, how long any screen remained active, etc. Every single data point you can imagine is being collected. The primary reason is to monetize it, to make money.

But that can get fuzzy, quickly. Does working with the government make them money? Does not working with the government lose them money? What if some in the company view certain users as inimical to their world view? And can they then skew data to make it look like someone is breaking the law?

As these very large corporations expand, their contact with the government blurs more and more, and that places our rights at risk. The provision of information collected on you by a corporation but provided to the government based on, for example, new banking regulations, tied to other, obscure regulations, and you could find yourself in court without any clear idea of how you got there. Even if it isn’t a criminal charge, the legal fees will build up.

In the past the phone company was, though quite profitable for stockholders, treated differently than many other companies. Many of the rules and regulations that guided the operation of the phone company as a utility - that all had access to - while limiting the potential impact on our rights, have been overcome by new technology.

As the systems that make this possible become ever more capable of monitoring literally everything we do electronically, it is past time that Congress take a hard look at reining in both how these companies monitor, use and control data and access, and at the same time substantially expand Congressional oversight of government agencies that seek to exploit the digital age; our Constitutional rights demand it.