Is Rand Paul a Good Guy or a Bad Guy on Privacy?

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2014-02-13 – Is Sen. Rand Paul a good guy or a bad guy on privacy?

Today he filed suit against President Obama and the NSA for violation of our fourth amendment right to privacy in their programs to data mine all electronic communication. This sounds like a good thing, but there are at least two indicators that the suit is meant more as a political stunt than as a serious effort to vindicate privacy rights.

The first indicator is that Paul sued Obama, among the other defendants. This is not a legal necessity. It is rare to sue a president to stop governmental action. To give you an idea, the lawsuit to halt Obamacare named Secretary Sibelius as the defendant. Naming government officials is really a formality when the aim is to affect government action. Naming the president is totally political.

A second indicator is that the plaintiffs are Paul and his political allies. The ACLU sued the NSA over privacy rights months ago. If I were planning litigation to affect an important program like the NSA surveillance program, I would come to court with a broad spectrum of plaintiffs. Attorneys in last term’s lawsuits over gay marriage and the Defense of Marriage Act included high profile lawyers from across the political spectrum. I don’t see that with Paul’s suit. (After I originally wrote this, the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank reported that former Reagan administration attorney Bruce Fein has accused Paul of plagiarizing the lawsuit complaint, making minor changes to remove Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) as a plaintiff in the suit. If true, Paul and his new attorney Ken Kuccinelli–the tea party darling from Virginia who sued to stop Obamacare–have opted to narrow the political breadth of the lawsuit.)

But these are minor points. A guy can do a good thing and still be a jerk about how he does it.

A few months ago, Paul introduced legislation to prohibit the government from accessing electronic data held by private corporations under the third-party doctrine without a warrant. This, too seems like a good thing. Why should the government be able to get information from Google or Facebook that they couldn’t get acting directly?

What troubles me is that Paul’s interest in privacy is focused only on government intrusions. It is even somewhat pro-corporate (based on his effort to prevent the government from accessing information about businesses using offshore dodges to avoid American taxes).

I personally don’t see the government as the only threat to my personal information. At least the NSA is supposedly snooping to protect me from terrorist attack. What public-spirited justification does a financial institution or marketing firm or a hospital have when they traffic in data about me that I should be able to control?

Yet these corporations do this daily without any restriction at law. Efforts to give citizens the right of control over their own personal information have always failed. On the issue of government v. citizen, Paul may be tactically on the right side. But on the issue of corporation v. citizen . . . not so much.

Taking power from the government isn’t necessarily a win for citizens if you just hand that power over to private businesses.

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