By Wayne A. Hall
You talk to your spouse on the Cell Phone , and the government eavesdrops and writes down your conversation.
In the privacy of your home you Google. And the feds take notes.
Your personal records are fair game. Hell, they could even find out what book you borrowed from the library. Or what's in your Palm Pilot.
This is America post-9/11, where, critics say, the government is watching and listening and probing. Armed with new anti-terrorism laws – the USA Patriot Act and its nosier brother, the proposed Patriot Act II – Big Brother can pry into your life in more ways than ever before. And it doesn't always need a warrant to do so.
They could pull you off the street into a black van and question you in secret. All they need to know is that you once belonged to something they think is connected to terrorism.
Government agents can peek almost unimpeded at your credit history, bank records, even your little red pharmacy discount cards.
Just six weeks after the World Trade Center fell, the Patriot Act's almost code-like changes to existing laws shot through Congress.
Some examples of how your life is, and could be, different:
-- You're a mom with four kids moving to Orange County. You'd like to know what the worst-case scenario is – how many people would be killed – in the event of an accident at the chemical plant in your new neighborhood.
You can't access that information on the Internet anymore.
-- The American Library Association complains that FBI agents no longer have to show probable cause to get a warrant for your records on the library computer you've used or the books you've taken out. They only have to show they need the data as part of an ongoing investigation related to terrorism.
-- If the gassed up Patriot II flies, officials will be able to delve into your personal records with unprecedented ease, says the Center for Public Integrity, a government ethics watchdog. The new version of the act is still being assembled by the White House, but drafts have been leaked.
"There are grave threats to privacy," says Center spokesman Bill Allison. "The scariest provisions are detentions without bail, secret arrests and roving wiretaps."
Patriot II, formally called the Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003, constitutes a "disregard for fundamental civil liberties and privacy rights," says American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Anthony Romero.
Next month, a Patriot Act experiment will begin to encrypt your airline ticket with personal background information. The code can tell security to stop you from boarding if they don't like what they see. Officials aren't saying what that means exactly. It's classified, says the Transportation Security Administration.
Now the transportation agency, which will run the program, says it will look mostly at your name, age and address. But those simple facts can lead them to your personal credit history, says OMB Watch, a group that keeps an eye on the doings of the government's Office of Management and Budget.
While Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo says hometown America will never feel the impact of the new anti-terrorism moves, Robert Hubsher, head of the Ramapo-Catskill Library System, isn't so sure.
"This makes it a little bit scarier," says Hubsher.
Marianne Paige, a New Windsor housewife, agrees: "It's none of their business what I read."
Corallo, over at Justice, says everyone's scared about nothing. He says his department would never invade personal privacy that could breach civil liberties. He says you can trust Attorney General John Ashcroft to protect your rights while he hunts down terrorists.
"The attorney general has asked his lawyers to think outside the box to stop terrorists, but never outside the Constitution," Corallo says.
In other words, no one's going to be driving up to people on the street and pulling them into a black van for questioning. No one will illegally eavesdrop or track your personal life.
Those library records? Hey, says Corallo, that applies just to non-U.S. citizens, green card holders or members of terrorist organizations.
Anyway, these are troubled times. Doesn't it make sense to give up a bit of our liberties for the sake of safety?
Doesn't Corallo have a point when he says, "Several of the Sept. 11 terrorists used computers in a public library to plot and plan our demise."
He says the secret court library subpoenas are up to independent, fair-minded federal judges. He also says whatever is in Patriot Act II would be constitutionally correct. "Civil liberties are a mantra around here," he says.
Still, people are nervous. Rep. Maurice Hinchey voted for the Patriot Act, but says he now wants to change it, especially the library surveillance, "which allows getting information from reading habits.''
Some people remember the government abusing its power in the past.
"I'm thinking about the McCarthy era," says SUNY New Paltz political Science professor Louis Brownstein.
Now that the impact is sinking in, people are speaking up: The Village of New Paltz has passed a resolution calling the Patriot Act a threat to the civil rights of its community. Municipalities in Cambridge, Mass., and Carrboro, N.C., have, too.
People don't like bashing the Constitution and Bill of Rights, say the resolutions.
But Rep. Sue W. Kelly, R-Katonah, would like to remind everyone that the Patriot Act just helped find a Yemeni cleric in Brooklyn who boasted that he personally delivered $20 million to Osama bin Laden.
"We need to know how the enemy funds its operations here and how to stop it," says Kelly, who chairs a House subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.
Brownstein agrees: "We're dealing with an enemy that studies our system [of open government] and uses it against us."
But he also cautions: "The challenge is to maintain proper balance."