Joe the Plumber and the Myth of Privacy

We recently received a message headed "Joe the Plumber and the Ohio cretins who tried to wreck him."  The message referred to an article written by Joe "The Plumber" Wurzelbacher which said:

It wasn't more than twenty-four hours after the debate when the invasion of my privacy began. According to the investigational report just released by the Ohio Inspector General's Office, my records were accessed Fourteen Times within the first forty-eight hours after the conclusion of the third and final presidential debate.

I have no doubt about the intentions of those who pursued such information and what they hoped to accomplish by exposing every minute detail about my personal life, nor do I excuse the state for its negligence and utter failure to protect the rights of its private citizens. Based upon the facts that we now have in our possession, I find it hard to believe that these attacks were not malicious and deliberate in their attempt to cause me irreparable harm. In fact, I have lost my job, which I loved and represented my pursuit of the American Dream. My family and I have also suffered from personal character assassination, vile public attacks and even death threats. [emphasis added]

Joe the Plumber came to national attention when he asked Mr. Obama a pointed question just before the presidential debate.  The question was a fair one: would Obama's tax increases fall on the self-employed and entrepreneurs making $250,000?  It was a very pertinent question for Joe as he was preparing to purchase a small business in the hopes that he, himself, would shortly be making that amount, but he needed to know that he could use his profits to pay back loans instead of taxes.  Mr. Obama was captured on video responding that he wanted to "share the wealth around" - namely, Joe's earned wealth.  In other words, Joe, stand by for big tax increases.

Not since Super Mario Bros. has a plumber so effectively landed a blow on a giant.  This perfectly ordinary man revealed Mr. Obama's economic plans more clearly than all the high-paid professional media or experienced Republican politicians managed to do in two years.  John McCain, while having failed to pin Mr. Obama down half so effectively, at least picked up the cudgel he'd been handed and started hammering with it.  Instead of responding productively, Mr. Obama's supporters took umbrage at Joe casting the cold water of reality over their hero's grand vision of "hope and change" and trashed him instead.

It's dismaying to see yet another example of Mr. Obama's supporters taking standard Chicago political practice nationwide.  Joe's experiences demonstrate another truth that every citizen needs to be aware of: where government is concerned, regardless of what the law might actually say, you have no privacy.

As a practical matter, by the very nature of computerized databases, every government record about you is available to low-level government employees who are able to access them whenever they feel like doing so.  This is particularly true of your medical records.  When the government recently updated the law with respect to keeping medical records confidential, they slyly inserted language which makes your records open to any government agency who cares to look.  As written, the law isn't really supposed to allow access quite that broadly, but in practice, anybody who wants your records can get them.  The same is true of passport records, tax records, and as Joe found out, records of child-support orders.

This problem is hardly unique to government.  Reuters reports that Mr. Obama's cell phone account records were accessed by Verizon Wireless employees.  Verizon says that no use was made of this potentially interesting information and that the perpetrators have been placed on unpaid leave; that's a little better than the punishment meted out to government employees who're usually placed on paid leave while charges against them are investigated, but a far cry from the jail terms ordinary citizens imagine that such snoops should receive.

Our government has realized what normal folks haven't: privacy is a lost cause.  An expose by the Washington Post of security at the Department of State revealed that poking around in private records is not merely possible, but commonplace:

Government workers repeatedly snooped without authorization inside the electronic passport records of entertainers, athletes and other high-profile Americans, a State Department audit has found. One celebrity's records were breached 356 times by more than six dozen people.

The audit, by State's inspector general, was prompted by the discovery in March that three of the department's contract workers had peeked at the private passport files of Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain and that a State Department trainee had examined the file of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.  [emphasis added]

The thought of literally dozens of curious bureaucrats poking around through celebrity files is vaguely amusing.  We can envision these minions in their horn-rimmed glasses standing around the water cooler giggling over the amusing things revealed therein and competing to see who can find the juiciest tidbit.  In the case of celebrities, it may not be any worse than their daily experiences with paparazzi and the National Enquirer anyway, but that doesn't make government snooping right.

So what can you do if your privacy is breached - assuming you even find out about it?  An article in the Washington Times shows what happened following the earlier investigation:

Two State Department employees were fired recently and a third disciplined for improperly accessing electronic personal data on Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, Bush administration officials said today.

The officials, all contract workers, used their authorized computer network access to look up files within the department's consular affairs section, which processes and stores passport information, and read Mr. Obama's passport application and other records, in violation of department privacy rules, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. [emphasis added]

Aha!  Finally, some sackings!  These particular nosy-parkers hit the file of someone too hot to handle - Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee, and now President-elect.  What about the six dozen people who confined themselves to celebrities?  Nope, no word on any punishment for those.  The lesson for bureaucrats to take home is simple: stay away from those powerful enough to make you pay, but anybody else is fair game.

We can't help but notice the amusing way this was reported, too.  The first sentence talks about State Department employees being fired, which is what the public would expect.  You have to read further to see that they weren't government employees at all - only contractors.  It's easy to get rid of a contractor; all that's needed is to pick up the phone to their employer and say their services are no longer required.  Getting rid of an actual union-protected government employee responsible for allowing this to take place?  Even Mr. Obama knew better than to hope for that.

There is no privacy for normal citizens any more, particularly when government or politics are involved.  Only if you are a powerful politician yourself can you even hope to make anybody pay for snooping in your locker.  Your life is an open book to anyone who's interested in you.  Get used to it.

Once upon a time, Americans believed in the All-Seeing Eye of God, and behaved themselves even when nobody visible was watching.  As in so many other aspects of modern life, government has now replaced the Almighty in His accustomed role.  It remains to be seen which overseer is preferred by most people, but we're on our way to finding out.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Bureaucracy.
Reader Comments
welcome to the world of the Feds.. Obama's minions are tyros compared to the more perverse thugs Bush used- at least Joe was not hauled off to a foreign country and interrogated. Since when has this manner of arrogance not been in fashion?
One way of dealing with this is being clean; another is being never ashamed of having done anything, for indeed self-critique is the weapon of choice among honest men, against which no tyrant can master, for when one errs, one admits it and moves on...
PS.. Joe was an idiot anyway: both honesty & its sire integrity did not belong in the McCain camp with its inherent cynicism & contradictory message.

April 30, 2010 9:22 PM
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