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Archive for the ‘Privacy’ Category

Senator Rand Paul is being criticized and condemned by the Washington establishment.

That’s almost certainly a sign that he’s doing the right thing. And given the recent events in Russia and Ukraine, we should say he’s doing a great thing.

Rand PaulThis is because Senator Paul is waging a lonely battle to stop the unthinking and risky move to a world where governments – including corrupt and evil regimes – collect and share our private financial information.

I’ve written about this topic many times and warned about the risks of letting unsavory governments have access to personal information, but the Obama Administration – with the support of some Republicans who think government power is more important than individual rights – is actively pushing this agenda.

The White House has even endorsed the idea of the United States being part of a so-called Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters, even though that would require the sharing of large amounts of personal financial data with thuggish and corrupt regimes such as Argentina, Azerbaijan, China, Greece, Mexico, Nigeria, Russia, and Saudi Arabia!

I’m sure Vladimir Putin very much appreciates this insider access so he can monitor dissidents and track political opponents. His government even signed onto a recent G-20 Communique that endorsed automatic information-sharing.

Heck, there’s even a Russian heading up the Financial Action Task Force, which is endlessly pushing to give governments untrammeled access to private information. FATF even wants banks and other financial institutions to spy on customers, regardless of whether there’s the slightest evidence of any wrongdoing.

The general mindset in Washington is that we should all bury our heads in the sand and blithely allow this massive accumulation of power and information by governments. After all, Putin and other thugs would never abuse this system, right?

Senator Paul battles the statists

Fortunately, at least one lawmaker is trying to throw sand in the gears. Like Horatius at the bridge, who single-handedly thwarted an invasion of Rome in 509 BC, Senator Paul is objecting to this massive invasion of privacy.

He has this old-fashioned appreciation for the Constitution and doesn’t think government should have carte blanche to access private financial data. He even – gasp! – thinks that government power should be restrained by the 4th Amendment and that there should be due process legal protections for individuals.

No wonder the DC establishment doesn’t like him.

One example of this phenomenon is that Senator Paul has placed a “hold” on some tax treaties. Here are some excerpts from a recent article in Politico.

Paul for years has single-handedly blocked an obscure U.S.-Swiss tax treaty that lawmakers, prosecutors, diplomats and banks say makes the difference between U.S. law enforcement rooting out the names of a few hundred fat-cat tax evaders — and many thousands more. …International tax experts for years have seethed over Paul’s block on the Swiss and several other tax treaties. These sorts of mundane tax protocols used to get approved by unanimous consent without anyone batting an eyelash — until Paul came to town.

These pacts are “mundane” to officials who think there shouldn’t be any restrictions on the power of governments.

Fortunately, Senator Paul has a different perspective.

Kentucky’s tea party darling says the treaty infringes on privacy rights. …Paul, a libertarian Republican widely believed to be eyeing a 2016 presidential run, says his hold stems from concerns about Fourth Amendment protections against “unreasonable search and seizure.” “These are people that are alleged, not convicted of doing anything wrong,” Paul said a few weeks ago. “I don’t think you should have everybody’s information from their bank. There should be some process: accusations and proof that you’ve committed a crime.”

The article also notes that Senator Paul is one of the few lawmakers to fight back against the egregious FATCA legislation.

Paul’s protest is also linked to his abhorrence of the soon-to-take-effect Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, which will force foreign banks to disclose U.S. account information to the IRS, and domestic banks to reciprocate to other nations’ revenue departments. …the senator has legislation to repeal FATCA and hesitates to support a treaty that enables a law he views as U.S. government overreach.

I don’t know how long Senator Paul can withstand the pressure in his lonely fight for individual rights, but I’m glad he’s waging the battle.

Even the Swiss government and Swiss banks have thrown in the towel, having decided that they have no choice but to weaken their nation’s human rights laws on financial privacy because of threats of financial protectionism by the United States.

So let’s give three cheers to our modern-day Horatius, a very rare elected official who is doing the right thing for the right reason.

For more information on the importance of financial privacy, here’s my video on the moral case for tax havens.

P.S. I shared some good jokes about Keynesian economics a few weeks ago.

Now, via Cafe Hayek, I have a great cartoon showing the fancy equation that left-wing economists use when they tell us that the economy will grow faster if there’s a bigger burden of government spending.

Keynesian Miracle Cartoon

Now you can see how the Congressional Budget Office puts together its silly estimates.

Indeed, Chuck Asay even produced a cartoon on CBO’s fancy methodology.

The next step is to find the secret equation that CBO uses when it publishes nonsensical analysis implying that growth is maximized when tax rates are 100 percent.

But to be fair, the politicians who pay their salaries want them to justify bigger government, so should we expect anything else?

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People are getting increasingly agitated about being spied on by government.

The snoops at the National Security Agency have gotten the most attention, and those bureaucrats are in the challenging position of trying to justify massive invasions of our privacy when they can’t show any evidence that this voyeurism has stopped a single terrorist attack.

And let’s not forget that some politicians and bureaucrats want to track our driving habits with GPS devices. Their immediate goal is taxing us (gee, what a surprise), but does anyone doubt that the next step would be a database of our movements?

But the worst example of government spying may be the web of laws and regulations that require banks to monitor our bank accounts and to share millions of reports about our financial transactions with the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network.

Money laundering laws were adopted beginning about 30 years ago based on the theory that we could lower crime rates by making it more difficult for crooks to utilize the financial system.

There’s nothing wrong with that approach, at least in theory. But these laws have become very expensive and intrusive, yet they’ve had no measurable impact on crime rates.

As you might expect, politicians and bureaucrats have decided to double down on failure and they’re making anti-money laundering laws more onerous, imposing ever-higher costs in hopes of having some sort of positive impact. This is bad for banks, bad for the poor, and bad for the economy.

And it’s encouraging banks to treat customers like crap. Check out this ridiculous example included in a BBC report.

Stephen Cotton went to his local HSBC branch this month to withdraw £7,000 from his instant access savings account to pay back a loan from his mother. A year before, he had withdrawn a larger sum in cash from HSBC without a problem. But this time it was different, as he told Money Box: “When we presented them with the withdrawal slip, they declined to give us the money because we could not provide them with a satisfactory explanation for what the money was for. They wanted a letter from the person involved.” Mr Cotton says the staff refused to tell him how much he could have: “So I wrote out a few slips. I said, ‘Can I have £5,000?’ They said no. I said, ‘Can I have £4,000?’ They said no. And then I wrote one out for £3,000 and they said, ‘OK, we’ll give you that.’ ” He asked if he could return later that day to withdraw another £3,000, but he was told he could not do the same thing twice in one day.

Here’s another absurd story.

Peter from Wiltshire, who wanted his surname withheld, had a similar experience. He wanted to take out £10 000 cash from HSBC, some to pay to his sons and some to fund his long-haul travel plans. Peter phoned up the day before to give HSBC notice and everything seemed to be fine. The next day he got a call from his local branch asking him to pay his sons via a bank payment and to provide booking receipts for his holidays. Peter did not have any booking receipts to show.

And another.

Belinda Bell is another customer who was initially denied her cash, in her case to pay her builder. She told Money Box she had to provide the builder’s quote.

Why is the bank treating customers like dirt? Well, because they’re pressured to act that way thanks to anti-money laundering laws, which basically require them to act as if unusual transactions are criminal. In other words, customers are guilty until they prove themselves innocent.

HSBC has said…”We ask our customers about the purpose of large cash withdrawals when they are unusual and out of keeping with the normal running of their account. Since last November, in some instances we may have also asked these customers to show us evidence of what the cash is required for.” “The reason being we have an obligation to protect our customers, and to minimise the opportunity for financial crime…” Money Box asked other banks what their policy is on large cash withdrawals. They all said they reserved the right to ask questions about large cash withdrawals.

They’ve “reserved the right”?!? I think Mr. Cotton was spot on when he groused, “You shouldn’t have to explain to your bank why you want that money. It’s not theirs, it’s yours.”

A few politicians also are unhappy about pointless government-mandated spying.

Douglas Carswell, the Conservative MP for Clacton, is alarmed… “All these regulations which have been imposed on banks…infantilises the customer. In a sense your money becomes pocket money and the bank becomes your parent.”

Not let’s look at an example of how anti-money laundering laws lead to foolish intervention in the United States.

We’ll start with a feel-good story from Wired about an entrepreneur coming up with a service that’s desired by consumers.

Mike Caldwell spent years turning digital currency into physical coins. That may sound like a paradox. But it’s true. He takes bitcoins — the world’s most popular digital currency — and then he mints them here in the physical world. …by moving the digital currency into the physical realm, he also prevents hackers from stealing the stuff via an online attack. …You send him bitcoins via the internet, and he sends you back metal coins via the U.S. Postal Service. To spend bitcoins, you need a secret digital key — a string of numbers and letters — and when Caldwell makes the coins, he hides this key behind a tamper-resistant strip. …Caldwell takes a fee of about $50 on each coin he mints.

But our silver cloud has a dark lining.

…he received a letter from the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, or FINCEN, the arm of the Treasury Department that dictates how the nation’s anti-money-laundering and financial crime regulations are interpreted. According to FINCEN, Caldwell needs to rethink his business. “They considered my activity to be money transmitting,” Caldwell says. And if you want to transmit money, you must first jump through a lot of state and federal regulatory hoops Caldwell hasn’t jumped through.

And since the hoops are very expensive, we have yet another example of foolish red tape killing a business.

Running afoul of FINCEN is a risky proposition. In the spring, the Department of Homeland Security seized two bank accounts belonging to Mt. Gox. The reasoning behind the $5 million seizure: Mt. Gox, like Caldwell, hadn’t registered itself as a money transmission business. …Because he runs a bitcoin-only business, Caldwell says there’s no Casascius bank account for authorities to seize. But he adds that he has no desire to anger the feds, whether he agrees with them or not. So he’s cranking out his last few orders.

I’m not saying, by the way, that bitcoins are necessarily a good way to hold wealth.

But I do believe that it’s good to see the evolution of private forms of money as a hedge against bad government policy. As I wrote back in 2011, “I have no way of knowing how well this system will work and how insulated it will be from government interference, but I very much hope it will be successful. Governments will never behave if they think people have no escape options.”

Unfortunately, politicians and bureaucrats are in the process of trying to shut down that escape option.

P.S. Switching to a different topic, I don’t know if there are any big policy implications, but I was fascinated to find this map in my twitter feed. It shows the first word that pops up when you ask why a country is so ____?

Europe Google Results

Here are my observations, for what it’s worth. Luxembourg and Switzerland are tax havens, so it’s no surprise that they are rich. Other nations should mimic their successful policies.

Norway, meanwhile, is rich because of oil.

I had no idea the Italians were supposed to be racist, though obviously this map merely shows what Google users are searching for, not what’s actually true.

I’m mystified that Macedonia is “important,” though I suspect Greece was similarly labeled because it is the first domino of the European debt crisis. Hardly something to be proud of.

I’m also surprised that Lithuanians are perceived as suicidal. Isn’t that a Swedish stereotype?

Croatia is beautiful, I’ll agree, at least along the coast.

The neglected people from Montenegro don’t even get a word! Heck, even the Kosovars and Moldovans have Google words.

I won’t comment on the stereotype about France, other than to say that the nation did get in the top-10 on a poll for attractiveness.

P.P.S. Since we’re discussing European stereotypes, here’s some politically incorrect terrorism humor from a British friend.

P.P.P.S. Speaking of stereotypes, here’s some polling data on how the Europeans see each other. I’m not sure how to interpret these results, other than to say that trustworthy people apparently are arrogant and lack compassion.

P.P.P.P.S. It goes without saying that I can’t resist the temptation to share these satirical maps on how the Greeks and Brits view their European neighbors.

P.P.P.P.P.S. Since the main topic of this post is money laundering, let’s end with a joke about how President Obama dealt with these foolish laws.

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Last June, in response to a question about indiscriminate spying by the National Security Agency, I made two simple points about the importance of judicial oversight and cost-benefit analysis.

I want – at a minimum – there to be judicial oversight whenever the government spies on American citizens, but I also think some cost-benefit analysis is appropriate. Just because a court has the power to approve snooping, that doesn’t mean it’s a sensible use of law enforcement resources.

Nothing since then has changed my mind.

Indeed, I’m perhaps even more skeptical of untrammeled government power and ability to spy on citizens for the simple reason that I don’t trust politicians.

Just look at how the White House turned the supposedly professional IRS into a partisan political operation. The government had power, ostensibly for a legitimate reason, but politicians and bureaucrats then used the power is a grossly improper fashion.

On the other hand, I know there are people out there who hate America. And they don’t just hate us because we’re intervening in the Middle East. I suspect many of them would want to kill us even if we had a perfect libertarian foreign policy of non-intervention and peaceful global commerce.

Now we learn from a report in the Washington Post that government has become bigger and more powerful and that our privacy has been violated as part of the NSA’s spying, yet there have been no benefits. As is zero. Nada. Zilch.

Here are some excerpts.

An analysis of 225 terrorism cases inside the United States since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has concluded that the bulk collection of phone records by the National Security Agency “has had no discernible impact on preventing acts of terrorism.” In the majority of cases, traditional law enforcement and investigative methods provided the tip or evidence to initiate the case, according to the study by the New America Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit group.

But perhaps, you may be thinking, this is merely the predictable conclusion of a group that is predisposed to be skeptical. That’s a fair concern, but the article also has some very compelling corroborating evidence.

The study, to be released Monday, corroborates the findings of a White House-appointed review group, which said last month that the NSA counterterrorism program “was not essential to preventing attacks” and that much of the evidence it did turn up “could readily have been obtained in a timely manner using conventional [court] orders.”

So not only do outsiders find little to no value in NSA spying, but even hand-picked insiders couldn’t come up with any evidence to show that the program was effective.

But you won’t be surprised to learn that defenders of the NSA have come up with a can’t-miss way of defining success.

Senior administration officials…say it has been valuable in knocking down rumors of a plot and in determining that potential threats against the United States are nonexistent. Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. calls that the “peace of mind” metric.

Yes, your eyes did not deceive you.You actually read correctly. The government wants us to acquiesce to a loss of privacy because we will learn that there are no threats and we’ll have “peace of mind.”

That has to be the lamest justification for government power that I’ve ever read.

This is even more preposterous than asserting that we should squander $1 trillion per year on anti-poverty programs, not because that redistribution will help the poor, but rather because it makes leftists feel better about themselves.

That being said, supporters do have a somewhat powerful comeback.

Michael Morell, a former acting CIA director and a member of the panel, said the program “needs to be successful only once to be invaluable.”

Indeed, I suspect this is the main reason why ordinary people might support the NSA.

But I disagree with Mr. Morell because he asserts that a single example of success would be invaluable. The article, for instance, cites one “victory” for the NSA surveillance program.

…the program provided evidence to initiate only one case, involving a San Diego cabdriver, Basaaly ­Moalin, who was convicted of sending money to a terrorist group in Somalia. Three co-conspirators were also convicted. The cases involved no threat of attack against the United States.

I’m glad that a foreign terrorist attack was blocked, but is that really “invaluable”? Does that “victory” justify a very expensive and very intrusive NSA monitoring regime?

As I’ve acknowledged before, I don’t know enough about terrorism to offer an informed viewpoint. But I have studied a similar issue, money laundering laws, and that research leads me to be very suspicious about the NSA.

These laws were put in place with the excuse that government would collect and analyze large amounts of data to help deter crime.

All the evidence, however, shows that these laws are a costly failure. The invade our privacy, hurt the poor, impose high regulatory costs, and have little or no impact on underlying crimes.

Just something to keep in mind when people argue that government should have more power and authority.

P.S. At least the revelations about NSA spying have generated some first-rate political humor.

P.P.S. Keep in mind that the NSA is just one cog in the machinery of government. So if you’re worried about the NSA’s intrusion and power, then you should also worry about the power of the IRS. If you’re concerned about the IRS’s authority, then you also should fret about the Obamacare exchanges. And if you think the Obamacare exchanges give the government too much knowledge and power, then you should be agitated about “know-your-customer” laws that require banks to spy on their customers. And if you’re not happy about those money-laundering rules, then you surely should be dismayed about asset-forfeiture rules. And if you don’t approve of government stealing property, then maybe you don’t like government accumulation of power for the Drug War. And if the failed War on Drugs rubs you the wrong way, then perhaps you…I better stop now. I think you get the point.

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There are many reason I don’t like Obamacare, including its punitive impact on taxpayers and the way it takes our healthcare system even further from a market-based approach.

But now I’m increasingly worried Obamacare also is creating a playground for hackers and identity thieves – and the rest of us will be the victims.

Simply stated, the results probably won’t be very pretty when you mix together these two items.

1) Typical government incompetence.

2) Massive data collection by government.

I pontificate on these issues in an interview with Neil Cavuto.

To elaborate, the internal revenue code is filled with double taxation of income that is saved and invested. As such the IRS insists on knowing extensive details on our income-producing assets, as well as any capital gains we earn.

And, if you’re subject to the death tax, they’ll want to know about everything you own. None of that would be necessary if we had a flat tax or a national sales tax.

Heck, they wouldn’t even need to know about your bank account since there’s no double taxation of interest with real tax reform.

But we’re on the other side of the pendulum, with the government wanting to know just about everything about our financial affairs. That’s good news for statists who want more redistribution…and it’s good news for other thieves who also want to take our money (but without using government as a middleman).

If you think I’m needlessly worried, check out this CNBC report. Here are some key excerpts.

Serious security weaknesses in the Internal Revenue Service’s data system have left millions of taxpayers’ sensitive financial information vulnerable to hackers. The agency claims it has fixed the problem, but its auditors beg to differ. A new report released by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) found that although the IRS claimed it had implemented 19 fixes to secure the system recommended by the auditor in previous years, at least eight (or 42 percent) of them “had not been fully implemented,” and should not have been checked off as completed. The auditors said the IRS never tracked its progress on the repairs, and in many cases, it closed cases without submitting documentation to prove the fix was complete. …The report also found that the agency didn’t properly scan servers—which contain taxpayer information—for “major vulnerabilities,” or properly lock user accounts, and it did not update software on databases. “When the right degree of security diligence is not applied to systems, disgruntled insiders or malicious outsiders can exploit security weaknesses and may gain unauthorized access,” Treasury Inspector General J. Russell George said.

That’s not exactly reassuring.

But it gets worse. Obamacare exchanges are a disaster waiting to happen, as explained in a USA Today column by the Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

Every day, personal information is the subject of hundreds of thousands of hacking attempts from all over the world. …On October 1, a major component of Obamacare made you even more vulnerable to devastating attacks on your personal information and the administration is doing too little about it. The Federal Data Services Hub (Hub), a component of the health insurance exchanges created by Obamacare, connects seven different government agencies and establish new access points to the sensitive personal information of the American public. Social Security numbers, employment information, birth dates, health records and tax returns are among the personal data that will be transmitted to this hub, consolidating an unprecedented amount of information. Every shred of data one would need to steal your identity or access your confidential credit information would be available at the fingertips of a skilled hacker, producing a staggering security threat. …These potential vulnerabilities are a dream of faceless international hackers and hostile foreign intelligence services.

Heck, you may as well put all your credit card info on your Facebook page.

More seriously, any sensible person will stay far away from Obamacare. Though if you don’t sign up on an Obamacare exchange, the White House wants you to get fined. So you lose no matter what.

Gee, isn’t big government wonderful?

P.S. I should have mentioned the huge privacy risks that will be created if politicians succeed in imposing an Internet sales tax cartel. Such a system will require a database of every online purchase and it will be accessible by bureaucrats from state and local governments.

P.P.S. I also failed to mention how high-tax governments such as France and Germany (with assistance from the Obama Administration) are pushing to create a global network of tax police that would collect and share information among governments – regardless of their level of corruption or pattern of human rights abuses!

NSA Yes We ScanP.P.P.S. Last but not least, we can’t have a discussion of privacy without mentioning our inquisitive friends at the NSA. Some of you may think it’s a non-story that the NSA is spying on just about all communications. The government, we are told, is merely trying to fight terrorism. Sounds okay in theory, but I’m not that sanguine for the simple reason that I don’t trust government. Indeed, all of us should worry that the NSA was just busted for spying on the web-surfing habits of its critics. Moreover, it doesn’t take much imagination to think the Obama White House would misuse that power to spy on political enemies. If you think I’m being paranoid, just consider how the IRS has been used as a partisan political tool in recent years.

P.P.P.P.S. I’ve been asked whether I’m worried that the NSA will snoop through my web history. As a matter of principle, I would object, but I’m not overly concerned because I’m a relatively boring person. That’s true even when I search for “libertarian porn” and “libertarian sex fantasies.”

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I’ve shared several videos that make the case against Obamacare.

Here’s one narrated by a Dutch woman warning that America shouldn’t repeat the mistakes of European government-run healthcare.

Here’s one from Reason TV about how free markets produce lower healthcare costs.

Here’s one explaining the need to deal with the government-caused third-party-payer crisis.

And I had to reluctantly admit that even one of Karl Rove’s group produced an effective video on Obamacare harming young people.

I think all of those videos are well done and contain critical information, but I suspect the humor in this clever video may change even more minds. Or at least it will be more widely watched.

Fortunately, the creepy Uncle Sam is only symbolic at this stage. While Obama probably would prefer a single-payer system like the one in the United Kingdom, where doctors and other medical personnel actually are government bureaucrats, the immediate danger is that Obamacare will turn health care professionals into agents of the government.

And the politicians will then direct doctors and others to collect information that the government shouldn’t possess.

If you think I’m exaggerating, read some of the chilling details from Betsy McCaughey’s recent New York Post op-ed.

‘Are you sexually active? If so, with one partner, multiple partners or same-sex partners?” Be ready to answer those questions and more the next time you go to the doctor, whether it’s the dermatologist or the cardiologist and no matter if the questions are unrelated to why you’re seeking medical help. And you can thank the Obama health law. …The president’s “reforms” aim to turn doctors into government agents, pressuring them financially to ask questions they consider inappropriate and unnecessary, and to violate their Hippocratic Oath to keep patients’ records confidential. …Dr. Richard Amerling, a nephrologist and associate professor at Albert Einstein Medical College, explains that your medical record should be “a story created by you and your doctor solely for your treatment and benefit.” But the new requirements are turning it “into an interrogation, and the data will not be confidential.”

I don’t like the idea of government bureaucrats having my private information, but what’s probably most worrisome about this Obama Administration scheme is that the data won’t be confidential.

As McCaughey writes, it’s just a matter of time before hackers or incompetent bureaucrats make that information public.

Patients need to defend their own privacy by refusing to answer the intrusive social-history questions. …Are such precautions paranoid? Hardly. WikiLeaker Bradley Manning showed how incompetent the government is at keeping its own secrets; incidents where various agencies accidentally disclose personal data like Social Security numbers are legion.

Do you want details about your sex life put at risk of disclosure? That’s what this issue is all about, not to mention the fact that what we do behind closed doors is none of the government’s business.

And I’m sure you’ll be delighted to know it’s not just data about your sex life that will be available for bureaucrats and identity thieves.

Here’s what Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah recently wrote.

Individuals signing up are required to provide personal information such as Social Security numbers, tax returns and household income information that will be entered into the Federal Data Services Hub (Data Hub) — a new information sharing network that allows other state and federal agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the Department of Homeland Security, to verify a person’s information. The problem?  …Last month the department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General (HHS-OIG) issued a report saying the federal government had failed to meet multiple deadlines for testing operations and reporting data security vulnerabilities involved with the Data Hub. …The repercussions of opening the exchanges with an unproven security system could be devastating, putting the personal and financial records of millions of Americans at the fingertips of data thieves.  Other government certified systems have already proven to be less than reliable in protecting personal information. Look no further than the accidental release by the IRS this past July of thousands of taxpayer Social Security numbers on its website. …we can’t stand on the sidelines and let the Administration potentially expose the personal data of millions of Americans to more fraud.

By the way, everything written by McCaughey and Hatch also helps to explain why we should resist privacy-destroying schemes such as the Internet sales tax cartel being pushed by greedy politicians. I know I wouldn’t want all my online purchases in a database where state and local bureaucrats would be able to snoop for details.

And we also should oppose international tax harmonization schemes that are predicated on governments all over the world collecting and sharing private information about our finances. That kind of data would be a gold mine for hackers and identity thieves, not to mention there are huge risks of making that information available to corrupt, incompetent, and venal governments.

The common theme is that we shouldn’t let government have more information about us, particularly when the politicians want that data to pursue bad tax policy or bad health policy.

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If you don’t like the NSA collecting and monitoring all your communications, you probably won’t be thrilled about new technologies that will give government power to monitor where you drive and control how you drive.

Let’s look at a couple of options and then ponder which is more offensive.

We’ll start with government monitoring of where you drive. Here’s part of what Holman Jenkins wrote for the Wall Street Journal.

…the real threat to our autonomy gathers speed. “Autonomous” vehicles are part of the threat—because they won’t be autonomous at all. This column has warned for years about plate-recognition cameras, increasingly armed with face-recognition capabilities, that will make it impossible to go anywhere or do anything in public without being monitored. …The population is aging. An older, more timid society is likely to be in favor of penning up fellow citizens in a mesh of monitoring to regulate routine behavior. The authoritarianism of the weak, always a problem in society, will find an ally in the bureaucracy’s craving for resources.

Holman cites a few examples.

Traffic cameras…overwhelmingly ring up drivers for offenses that wouldn’t trouble a cop. New Jersey is just the latest state scandalized by discovery that yellow lights are set below the state minimum in order to yield more red-light camera tickets. …In some future discrimination or hate-crime lawsuit, will vehicle records be called up to show you locked your doors in a minority neighborhood but not in a white neighborhood? Will the state decide to raise your ObamaCare copays because a face-recognition camera also recognized a cigarette dangling from your lip? When our every action in space and cyberspace can be monitored and policed, we no longer police ourselves to any meaningful extent. We become not citizens but children. The state is our parent. The real threat is that many of our fellow citizens will like it this way.

This sounds very Orwellian and very bad, but there are other ways for government to make driving an unpleasant experience.

Let’s see what the UK-based Daily Mail is reporting about an obnoxious European proposal to give government control over your gas pedal.

Drivers face having their cars  fitted with devices that slam on the brakes if they go over the speed limit, under draconian new road safety measures being drawn up by  officials in Brussels. All new cars would have to include camera systems that ‘read’ the limits displayed on road signs and automatically apply the brakes. And vehicles already on the road could even be sent back to garages to be fitted with the ‘Big Brother’ technology… The EC’s Mobility and Transport Department hopes to roll out the ‘Intelligent Speed Adaptation’ technology (ISA) as part of a new road safety programme.

And how will this big-brother system work?

The ISA technology works in one of two ways – either through satellites, which communicate limits automatically to cars from databases, or by using cameras to read road signs. It then deploys one of three controls to slow drivers: ‘advice’, in which the motorist is simply notified of the speed limit by an alarm, giving them the opportunity to slow down; ‘driver select’, which arrests the car’s speed but gives the driver the option of disabling the device; or ‘mandatory’, which would not let a driver breach the speed limit under any circumstances. …A spokesman for the AA said at lower speeds the new technology could actually create dangers. He said: ‘If you were overtaking a tractor and suddenly needed to accelerate to avoid a head-on collision, you would not be able to.’

I’m glad people from the Automobile Association are warning that the system poses risks, but opposition should be based on more than utilitarian arguments. How about the freedom to be left alone and not monitored and pestered while you travel?

But let’s set that issue aside and contemplate whether it’s worse to have the government track where you drive or worse to have the government control how you drive.

Maybe this makes me a bad libertarian, but I’m not overly worried about the first option. Perhaps this is because I have a relatively staid life. I drive to work and I drive to softball. Every so often, I drive to the grocery store or to an airport. The bureaucrats tracking me would go crazy with boredom. Heck, I’d probably feel some pressure to spice up my social life simply because I’d feel sympathy for them.

Maybe they’ll force us to drive green cars?

By contrast, I would be very irritated if the government got control over my accelerator. It’s already annoying that revenue-hungry local governments and anti-automobile greenies conspire to set speed limits considerably below safe and efficient levels. But at least there’s very little risk if you drive within 10 miles of the limit and you always have the choice to drive even faster if you’re willing to take a chance that some random cop will pull you over. But if the government imposes some system that forces my car to stay within the speed limit, I won’t be a happy camper.

I’ll be very curious to read the comments for this post. In the meantime, I’m going to close with a few optimistic words.

Simply stated, government may have the technology to spy on us, but that doesn’t mean they have the brains, ability, or manpower to make much use of this power.

Money laundering laws are a good example. It’s rather offensive that the government has set up a system that forces banks and other financial institutions to spy on all of our financial transactions.

But other than imposing high costs on the financial sector, this system doesn’t have much impact on the average person. To be sure, some poor people lose access to the financial system. And, yes, there are horror stories about people who have their accounts frozen because they’ve engaged in an unusual transaction, but most of us will live our lives without ever noticing that the government has created this Orwellian regime.

Likewise, I don’t think the monitoring and collection of traffic data will impact our lives. At least not until the point the government uses its power in some of the ways described by Holman Jenkins. But I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon.

I’m also somewhat hopeful that car-control technologies won’t get abused. At least not right away. Local governments, for instance, would probably oppose a system to control travel speeds for the simple reason that they want to maintain the revenue from speeding tickets.

Moreover, I bet many Americans would rise up in revolt if the government tried to take control of our gas pedals. Politicians who pushed for such a scheme would lose election and bureaucrats who tried to impose such a system via regulation would get slapped down.

We’ve lost some of our freedoms and fighting spirit, but there are some lines the government still can’t cross. Driving faster than the government allows is as American as apple pie.

P.S. Speaking of American traditions, what about the young (and not-so-young) people who sometimes do a bit of romancing while in their cars? Maybe the bureaucrats (motivated by this Obama-NSA joke) will insist that we also install internal cameras in our vehicles.

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I want government to successfully and rationally fight crime and stop terrorism. That’s a perfectly appropriate libertarian sentiment since protecting life, liberty, and property are among the few legitimate roles for government.

But I don’t want to give bureaucrats carte blanche to monitor our lives and I don’t want to waste money in those cases where it is proper for the government to snoop on bad guys.

And those are some of the sentiments I expressed in this panel for Forbes on Fox.

My wonkish concern for cost-benefit analysis and corporate welfare is not empty posturing. There’s real money involved.

Here’s some of what CBS News reported on the issue.

How much are your private conversations worth to the U.S. government? Turns out, it can be a lot, depending on the technology. …AT&T, for example, imposes a $325 “activation fee” for each wiretap and $10 a day to maintain it. Smaller carriers Cricket and U.S. Cellular charge only about $250 per wiretap. But snoop on a Verizon customer? That costs the government $775 for the first month and $500 each month after that… Industry says it doesn’t profit from the hundreds of thousands of government eavesdropping requests it receives each year… “What we don’t want is surveillance to become a profit center,” said Christopher Soghoian, the ACLU’s principal technologist. But “it’s always better to charge $1. It creates friction, and it creates transparency” because it generates a paper trail that can be tracked. …The FBI said it could not say how much it spends on industry reimbursements because payments are made through a variety of programs, field offices and case funds.

I confess that I’m not an expert – or even a novice – on the details of law enforcement, but I’m glad that my speculation on the low cost of setting up a wiretap seems to have been accurate. At least based on this excerpt from the article.

In 2009, then-New York criminal prosecutor John Prather sued several major telecommunications carriers in federal court in Northern California in 2009, including AT&T, Verizon and Sprint, for overcharging federal and state police agencies. In his complaint, Prather said phone companies have the technical ability to turn on a switch, duplicate call information and pass it along to law enforcement with little effort. Instead, Prather says his staff, while he was working as a city prosecutor, would receive convoluted bills with extraneous fees. The case is pending.

This article, as well as the Forbes on Fox debate, deal with general law enforcement, not the controversy about NSA data collection and monitoring.

But I can’t resist sharing this excellent bit of NSA-related humor that arrived in my inbox.

NSA Obama Humor

Very similar in quality and theme to this great set of images.

And if you appreciate political cartoons on this topic, here are some of my favorites. I think the one featuring Nixon and Bush is the best of the bunch.

Last but not least, here are my thoughts on the NSA/Snowden controversy if you want some non-humorous analysis.

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