Friend or Foe?

January 27, 2002

by John K. Bates

This space has been a frequent (and the writer hopes, consistent) critic of our government’s attempts to truncate freedom in the name of “safety.” The actions by government in the wake of last year’s terrorist attacks have smacked of nothing more than political opportunism, with politicians and bureaucrats running around pretending to “do something” to prevent terrorism in the future. In reality, all they are doing is looking busy, inconveniencing the public, and annoying those of us who can think for ourselves. Their efforts are for the most part as futile as they are pointless.

As time has passed, many ideas and proposals have come about to “protect us” from the possibility of such an event ever happening again. And also as time passes, many of these proposals either become forgotten, or are overshadowed by the clutter of short-term solutions and the “normal” news of the day. Despite this, some of the more far-fetched ideas live on and percolate just beneath the radar screen of popular culture.

This is a shame. It is also a potential tragedy. For some of the ideas proposed to make us all “safe” are frighteningly serious threats to our liberties. But unlike so many of the bad ideas already foisted upon a pliant American public, the very worst of these ideas do not actually come from government. On the contrary, the most oppressive ideas meant to “protect” us from harm are being promoted by group of people that would seem on the surface to be champions of freedom and individuality.

These people are the leaders and business moguls of the technology industry. On the surface, this might seem a surprise. The technology industry, after all, has been the engine of productivity that has driven the economic boom of the past 20 years. These are the companies that have long promoted a free spirit, with such liberating market slogans as “think different” and “where do you want to go today.” They are mavericks: companies founded by young men and women who went outside the corporate box and into their garages to create products the stuffed shirts said could never work and would never sell. Surely, if one were to take a poll of the type of business most symbolic of American capitalism and freedom, the high-tech industry would certainly be at or near the top.

Yet some of the leaders of these companies apparently think that freedom is something that should reside only in marketing campaigns and not in the streets of America. One of these leaders is Scott McNealy, the CEO of Sun Microsystems. Sun manufactures large-scale networks and servers and is a chief critic and opponent of Microsoft, ironically on grounds of freedom (of the marketplace). In the wake of September 11, Mr. McNealy has made several high-profile pitches for the creation of a national-ID card system. The system, so says McNealy, would be used to ensure safety on airplanes or other potentially risky gatherings of large people. It would also appear to have a voluntary aspect. “I want to get on the flight where everybody’s been authenticated and checked against a database,” McNealy claimed in a December interview with the Denver Post. Presumably, this would mean some people might choose to not obtain such a card, although it is hard to imagine too many people opting out of the program when they would therefore be banned from flying. For McNealy, only a national I.D. card - a card that must lead to a national, government-controlled database on all citizens holding such cards - can make us all safe.

Sharing McNealy’s enthusiasm for a national ID card is Larry Ellison, Chairman and CEO of Oracle Corporation. But he seems to have a somewhat different motive. Mr. Ellison has offered the government his company’s database software for “free” to help create the national ID system. The offer is generous, but one must keep in mind that Oracle would stand to make billions doing follow-up and service work. What we have is a philosophy that while safety is good, safety combined with profit is better. And freedom apparently is disposable, so long as share prices continue to increase.

And that seems to be the point. It makes this writer wonder what is exactly the motive of folks such as McNealy and Ellison. Are they truly concerned with the safety of Americans - or are they concerned with getting the American government to spend millions installing the sophisticated databases and servers necessary to keep track of all Americans? Considering the costs necessary to implement even marginally sophisticated systems, it is not at all unrealistic to assume their concern is much more aligned with the latter than the former.

Consider, for example, how much just a marginal tracking or identification system will cost. Recently a small public/private group called the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA) called for the creation of national drivers licensing standards. The AAMVA has asked Congress for a cool $100 million to create more rigorous drivers license standards as well as new, higher-technology drivers licenses. What the AAMVA desires is a far cry from a national ID, but it is a start. And if such a limited system costs $100 million, imagine how much a full-fledged ID system will cost. This is the pie that McNealy and Ellison wish to serve us - the same pie that they wish to take a very large piece of.

So what is wrong with a national ID system? Simply put, it will lead to privacy creep that will make today’s telemarketer intrusions seem like the pastoral days of old. Once information - and more importantly, the infrastructure necessary to create, store, and easily retrieve information - is gathered to fight against “terrorism,” it is only a matter of time before someone, somewhere decides that the billions of dollars invested in this equipment can be put to other uses. Databases could include information drug dealers or users, child abusers (these actually already exist), prostitutes and solicitors, “deadbeat dads,” habitual criminals, habitual parking offenders, tax cheats, and a host of other undesirables. But why stop there? Would not it make sense for a government to keep a database on, say, smokers in order to target them to stop? How about a database on patrons of adult video stores, in order to perhaps catch sex criminals? A database on overweight people will help government target programs to help them. And just how long will it be before a revenue-hungry politician decides that these databases are too valuable to leave sitting around? Marketers would pay millions - maybe billions - to get the information that Mr. McNealy and Mr. Ellison would gladly acquire and conveniently store in order “protect us” - and also to sell more of their computer systems and software.

Not a single major technology player, looking at the prospect of the government spending billions to equip the country with national controls and identification, has come out to condemn the idea for what it is: a direct threat to the concept of American freedom. Its’ champions, such as Mr. McNealy and Mr. Ellison, have tremendous financial incentives for these systems to be created. Far defenders of the people concerned about the “security” of average Americans, they are wolves who would put those same people under an endless government monitor for a few bucks increase in stock prices. It is up to the American people to stand their ground and stand up for themselves in the name of freedom before we allow the government - and those who use the government as vehicles for their own profit - to take an enormous piece of freedom away from all of us.


John K. Bates is a part-time freelance writer who works in the energy engineering field and lives in the Denver, Colorado area. He enjoys many outdoor pursuits and the company of his family of three cats. His columns can also be seen on

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