No False Dogs Before Me
Good News, Bad News in War on Privacy
Thursday, December 19, 2013
MAKES ME BLUSH: It’s come to this: The only real way to keep other people from invading the sanctity of your underwear drawer is not to wear any underwear. I mention this in light of recent developments with the National Security Agency (NSA) and, oddly enough, our friends in charge of Cottage Hospital.
Recent revelations about the NSA — which has been strip-mining the metadata of phone records of millions of American citizens far more rapaciously than any coal company ever pillaged Appalachia — demonstrate that no matter how warped and creepy Edward Snowden might be, he’s done a great service by exposing this practice. No, they may not be listening to what we say, but they’ve been tracking whom we’re talking to. The good news is that a fat-faced federal judge named Richard J. Leon — armed with the facts that creepy Snowden brought to light — termed the practice “almost Orwellian.” Leon declared the practice unconstitutional, explaining that it violated protections against warrantless search and seizure by government agencies. “I cannot imagine a more ‘indiscriminate’ and ‘arbitrary’ invasion than this systemic and high-tech collection of personal data on virtually every single citizen,” he wrote, “for the purpose of querying it and analyzing it without prior judicial approval.” Leon pointedly noted the government failed to present a single instance in which this invasion of privacy thwarted a terrorist attack.
Given Leon’s political history as a legal hit man for the Republican Party and the imperial presidency, this story clearly qualifies as the dog-eats-dog variety. Before his appointment to the federal bench by George Bush II, Leon churned out legal opinions arguing if a president committed a crime, it wasn’t a crime because the president committed it. Once on the bench, he flowered into a far more interesting and unpredictable character. On the issue of Gitmo detainees, Leon has issued rulings both affirming and denying their rights. More recently, he ruled the Food and Drug Administration is required to certify that drugs imported into the United States to kill condemned death row inmates can do so safely and humanely. In his NSA decision, Leon challenged the Supreme Court’s 1979 wiretap ruling that has been used to justify the NSA’s war on our phone records. That case involved a Baltimore man who stole a woman’s car and then peppered her with threatening phone calls. When the cops caught him by tapping her phone, he objected they never got a warrant. The Supremes concluded no warrant was needed because phone customers — knowing that the phone company kept records of all their calls — had no expectation of privacy. The most important fact here is that the car thief’s name was Michael Lee Smith, which — yet again — proves my theory that people with the first, last, or middle name Lee (or any variant) are disproportionately prone to sociopathic behavior. Judge Leon argued the feds could no longer use a case in which one person had her phone tapped for a few days to justify tracking every phone call made in the United States. The telephonic realities of 1979 and the present had changed in ways exceeding the scope of science fiction. To liken one to the other was akin to equating a grain of sand to the whole beach.
That’s the meta-news on metadata, and for once, it’s really good. On the micro level, I was one of 32,500 individuals to receive a Dear John note from Cottage Hospital — our favorite local monopoly — informing me that a private vendor they’d hired to manage their computerized records inadvertently forgot to lock up their equivalent of my underwear drawer where four years’ worth of my medical records were kept. Someone, they said, could have come in and taken a peek. On December 2, Cottage got a call from an unnamed third party reporting the records of at least one of the 32,500 showed up on Google. The good news, we’ve been told, is that absolutely no financial data has been breached. There’s nothing in my records that would cause personal embarrassment, but such information is intensely personal and private. If patients think Cottage can’t keep their secrets, maybe they won’t tell their doctors what their doctors need to know.
I’m far more upset that Cottage — our community hospital, where we are told 2,300 babies are born a year — has unilaterally decided to shut down its subacute care ward at Goleta Valley and outsource that extremely vital, if difficult and no doubt expensive, function to a hospital I’ve never heard of located in Camarillo. For years now, the plan has been that the subacute care ward — where service-intensive patients who may never get better are sent — would be relocated to Cottage’s new and improved Santa Barbara campus. Now we are told that’s no longer the case. Instead, they’ll be sent to St. John’s Pleasant Valley Hospital, which we are told by Cottage is so much more, well, pleasant. Not only that, but according to the Cottage press release, it’s “nestled near the foothills of Camarillo.” Everything is better, after all, when it’s nestled. What may not be so pleasant, however, is the extra drive. On a good day, Camarillo is 43 minutes from Santa Barbara. One way. If you live in Lompoc — as some patients’ parents do — it’s effectively a two-hour drive. One way. Oh well, what’s a four-hour drive if your semi-vegetative son is nestled near the foothills? I’d remind you all the last time Cottage outsourced a vital community function, it relocated our only geriatric psychiatric wing to St. John’s (Unpleasant) Hospital in Oxnard. Guess what? St. John’s geriatric psych ward shut down shortly thereafter, and today Santa Barbara has no facility in which to nestle its geriatric psych patients.
My point is this: If Cottage can accidentally expose our medical records — and our not-so-tidy whities — to potential prying, they should return the favor. Nice, pleasant, and nestled just don’t cut it when explaining why they want to outsource a vital medical service. Cottage, open up your own underwear drawers, and let the light come shining in.