Parting gift of privacy

July 26, 2002

IF THE SUBJECT is fishing, football or his family, Republican Rep. Dick Armey of Texas is all smiles and corny jokes -- usually told in the lyrics of a country song.

What ticks him off is big government bullies -- the kind who want to take all your money in taxes and then tell you how to live your life. Unmanned cameras that record traffic violations and then send tickets in the mail are among his latest gripes.

So it should come as no surprise to President Bush that the House majority leader has moved quickly to squash like a bug the schemes for violating privacy contained in the president's plans for homeland defense.

The worst of these bad ideas calls upon Americans to snoop on their neighbors and rat them out for any suspicious goings-on. The objective of the so-called Operation TIPS (for Terrorism Information and Prevention System) is to take advantage of the access that repair people, letter carriers, cable installers and other previously nonthreatening types have to neighborhoods and private homes.

So outraged were civil liberties groups and would-be snoopers that the Justice Department started backpedaling on the mission almost as soon the TIPS program hit the news last week.

But just to be sure, Mr. Armey included in the bill creating a new Department of Homeland Security a ban on any operation that "can be construed to promote citizens spying on one another."

The majority leader also moved to stop another, less immediately obvious threat to privacy: nationalized drivers' licenses.

It's a notion Mr. Armey has been fighting since the Clinton administration first proposed it six years ago. The chief purpose of standardizing drivers' licenses is to compile a national database that would be quickly available to law enforcement agencies all over the county.

The new spin added by Mr. Bush is that these cards would bear not only the driver's Social Security number but also a computer chip with fingerprints.

If that doesn't sound creepy right off, consider the possibilities for abuse. Extremely sensitive personal information on innocent citizens -- related to health and finances, for example -- would be available to every Barney Fife in the country. They might not mean to steal it or sell it, they might just accidentally let it get into the wrong hands.

Beyond that, Mr. Armey argues convincingly that requiring Americans to walk around with national identity papers "is not consistent with a free society."

The majority leader's bill would also install a privacy officer in the new department to ride herd on overzealous researchers.

Heading into retirement this year at the end of his ninth term, Mr. Armey speaks often of how liberating it is not to have worry about re-election. Given his record, he probably would have taken a strong stand on privacy issues anyway. Even so, it's a nice parting gift.

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