Whether it has been moves to restrict American women's right to choice, spying and collecting data on Americans without court warrant or attempts to limit Americans' rights based on their sexual orientation, the Bush administration has gone to great lengths in the past six years to whittle away at Americans' privacy rights. Perhaps no story is indicative of this tendency as the lead article in today's issue of The Hill, which was penned by Alex Bolton.
A secretly recorded meeting of researchers working for the Department of Veterans Affairs indicates that the department did not take seriously congressional requests intended to safeguard the personal and medical information of veterans.
The recording, obtained by The Hill from a researcher who attended the meeting, sheds light on a behind-the-scenes struggle between lawmakers and Veterans Affairs officials over the handling of veterans' personal information.
"If you want to know what's the real purpose of the data call, read Machiavelli. It's about power, it's about Congress saying, `VA, you're accountable to us,'" one Veterans Affairs official, Dr. Joseph Francis, says on the tape. "We're not asking people to do an A-plus job on this report."
Questions on the security of the information rose to prominence last May when a Veterans Affairs employee lost to theft a laptop computer containing the personal information of 26.5 million veterans and military personnel. Although authorities eventually recovered the laptop, the incident sounded alarms on Capitol Hill.
The House source said lawmakers have tried to find out how many people connected to VA have the same access to personal information as the employee who lost the infamous laptop in May but that VA still can "not completely" answer that question.
The source said if the department followed proper information accounting practices, "you should be able in an hour to find on a data call who has access to what."
The cavalier attitude with which the VA has dealt with the privacy rights of America's veterans under the Bush administration is unconscionable. While it would perhaps be unfair to blame the VA for the loss of data of millions upon millions of veterans -- it's still not clear, at least to me, whether their practices or oversight were faulty or if one bad apple within the agency simply failed to comply with rules -- the fact that the VA cares so little about even appearing to care about securing the personal data of these Americans is just plain wrong.
In general, data security and the right to privacy are two connected areas upon which Democrats have a real capacity to woo support from the public. On a range of issues, whether it is the federal government prying into Americans' credit card records or large companies and institutions allowing improper access to social security numbers and other such information, a large percentage of Americans are increasingly worried about the security of their personal information. Fear of identity theft plays a large part in this, but undue government information mining does as well.
Combatting these attacks on Americans' privacy certainly plays into progressive philosophy, so Democrats would by no means be selling out their core beliefs by stressing these issues more strongly. And while Democrats should not engage in the type of fear-mongering typified by the Bush administration's repeated references to terror, Al Qaeda and 9/11 to amass political power, the Democrats can begin to offer real solutions that can assuage the genuine concerns of Americans. I'll admit, I don't know a whole lot about legislation that's out there on the Democratic side of the aisle to deal with these issues, but it's something I will be looking into in the near future. (John Aravosis of Americablog has been a leader on the subject, most notably pushing for legislation that would specifically ban pretexting; I'm sure there are more bills out there as well.) But if the Democrats can come up with sensible legislation on the matter that is both meaningful and understandable by the greater public then they will almost undoubtedly be met with a positive response by voters.