Taking secrecy personally

While we were discussing one of the problems we at the newspaper sometimes have in obtaining public records, another journalist advised me, “Don’t take it personally.”

Well, sorry, but I do take it personally. I can’t for the life of me understand why you don’t, dear reader.

Think of information flow as an interstate highway. On one side of it is information flowing from you to the government. On the other side, government should be reciprocating.

But it’s as if I-70 westbound suddenly had a 150 mph speed limit, while a convoy of trucks moving at 15 mph – and sometimes stopping altogether – was on I-70 eastbound.

At an unprecedented pace, the government is picking up information about us. It’s not just the National Security Agency. The IRS and a host of other bureaucracies at all levels are involved, too.

In some ways, they really may know more about you than you do about yourself. As I explained in a column a few years ago, some government agencies with websites partially open to the public use an interesting security system to check the identity of those trying to connect. You tell them who you say you are, then they ask you a variety of questions to which only you would know the answers. Some involve street addresses at which you haven’t lived for decades.

I couldn’t answer one of Big Brother’s questions. I didn’t remember. He did.

Meanwhile, exemptions to government freedom of information laws are put into place by the thousands each year. Among those discussed by West Virginia legislators this month were some regarding public access to information on chemical storage tanks.

Government at all levels – local, state and federal – is digging up more information about us at the same time it is putting new limits on what we can learn about it.

Yes, I take that personally. So do many of the rest of us in the press, because we’re on the front lines. Every time a government official refuses to provide us with information, he or she is telling you to take a long walk off a short pier.

Ask yourself this: How much privacy do I have?

Now ask yourself how much privacy your government has.

This is very personal.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Mike Myer is executive editor of The Intelligencer and the Wheeling News-Register. He can be reached via email at mmyer@theintelligencer.net