At the Root
I am Not a Number, I'm a Customer!
by Wendy McElroy

Yesterday, upon attempting to withdraw a respectable but not impressive sum of money from my bank account, I was asked, "What do you want it for?" The question was not hostile, but it was repeated when I refused to answer.

Then, upon arriving at the airport, the clerk required a photo-ID before issuing me a boarding pass. Air lines allegedly adopted this requirement in response to terrorism. Of course, it conveniently killed the sale of "frequent flyer" tickets that regular customers sold to strangers -- a black market practice that cost the air lines a fortune. Although the ticket itself is 'proof of purchase' and everyone in the counter's queue has already been electronically frisked for weapons, people passively line up to prove their identity before receiving a pre-paid service: they do so because the demand is phrased in terms of safety.

Within a generation, no one may remember when people withdrew their own money or traveled within their own country without justifying themselves.

The private sector is rushing to gather personal information on customers. Internet companies, like AOL, share information with government agencies.  Corporations routinely use urine tests to check for drugs.  Social Security Numbers are required business I.D. despite original government assurances that this would not happen. Debit cards create records of users' personal preferences, down to their brand of canned peas and reading choices, and these records are marketable. They are also used in legal proceedings, e.g. Monica Lewinsky's reading preferences. In short, private enterprise is spying on customers and demanding information far above anything required by law. This would not have been tolerated ten years ago. When it was openly practiced in the early 1900s, it had disastrous results for liberty.

For example, in the days of World War I (and shortly thereafter), deputized members of the American Legion often attended labor meetings in Los Angeles to arrest the radicals they found there. Those arrested were taken to the Merchants and Manufacturers Association. In my upcoming book, Queen Silver: the Godless Girl (Prometheus, Dec. '99), a young radical of the '20s recalls,

"...the Merchants and Manufacturers Association in Los Angeles at that time was the group maintaining the files . It was not done primarily by the police department, but by private organizations. When radicals were arrested, they were usually not taken -- at least, my mother was not taken -- to the police department.  They were taken to the Merchants and Manufacturers Association. On one occasion, they showed my mother her file...

"They had everything from the time she had left the farm, to her speaking on Boston Common and every organization she'd ever spoken for and, I suppose, every man she'd been friendly with."

Business had become an extension of police power.

The records collected by the Merchants and Manufacturers Association were used in the infamous Palmer Raids -- a precursor to the tactics of Senator McCarthy -- through which the government targeted labor radicals in America for intense harassment, including deportation. The brutal fact is: private enterprise has a rich history of voluntarily co-operating with government to violate the privacy of customers and other peaceful individuals. It is criminally niave to believe assurances that this wealth of infor mation will not shared with government or otherwise used.

My response has been to argue with virtually everyone who asks an intrusive question. Why do you need my middle name? What does my birth date have to do with buying a television? If I pay cash, do I need to fill out this form? Does your competitor require the same information? If I provide my credit card number, will you give me yours?

I consider such questions to be basic training for the cranky old lady in Reeboks I fully intend to become. Our society needs nothing so much as a vast hord of cranky people whose standard response to impertinent inquiry is, "mind your own damned business!"