One recent story that keeps popping up in my news feeds is how various police and intelligence authorities are complaining about the security in the iPhone 6 being too tough for them to crack. I’m not sure how much of that is real, but it does suggest a couple observations we might make.
First, if it’s true that the iPhone 6 is the first device that’s not open for the police to read whenever they want, then that means all previous devices have been more or less open to government search and seizure at their discretion. A court order might be nice, but as we’ve seen again and again, the government routinely dispenses with such formalities when they become inconvenient.
The second and more important observation is that there’s been a fundamental shift in the foundations of our democratic republic. The government is no longer owned by the people. The people are now owned by the government, at least in the government’s opinion.
Think about it. When you possess something, you possess the thing and everything that goes along with it. In a nation where the government belongs to the people, that means the people possess the government and all the government’s possessions. This is not to say that each and every individual is free to help themselves to the government’s property, or that the state cannot institute reasonable safeguards to prevent inappropriate disclosure of the nation’s strategic secrets. But at a fundamental level, the people have the right to control the government’s assets and access the government’s information. The state may require that the people select representatives who can pass a reasonable background check before giving those people access to government information, but it cannot refuse point blank to disclose arbitrary “state secrets,” because those secrets belong to the people, and the government has no right to refuse to let the people access their own possessions.
But that’s not what we have in America today. In America, it’s the other way around. The government owns its own secrets, and is under no obligation to share them with anyone, period. But the people do not have that right. There is nothing you possess that the government cannot legally take from you, either by asset forfeiture laws or by spying or by data mining. You, as a citizen of the United States, are the possession of the US government, and your government is entitled to take anything it wants from you, with or without your knowledge or consent. Any protests in favor of privacy are met with annoyed frowns and questions about whether you’re trying to hide something. The implication is that you’re up to something evil, but the underlying assumption is that you’re interfering in the government’s desire to take what it wants from you, whenever it wants, without your consent.
This is what it means to be a possession of the government. There is nothing in your possession that is uniquely and rightfully yours. There is no information that belongs to you, such that the government is under any obligation to ask your permission before taking it. You are a possession of your government, and as such, all of your possessions are legally the possessions of the government, which is entitled to take them from you whenever and as often as they please.