Story by Will Chappell | Contributing Writer
Photo by Houston Chronicle
Passage of a strict anti-abortion law in Texas set both sides in the abortion debate on fire, with supporters heralding a new era for pro-life activism and opponents fearing the turning tide.
But the new law’s enforcement mechanism to prevent abortions after six weeks should cause alarm in all quarters of American society.
Texas has empowered individual citizens to sue other citizens who assist women seeking abortions. This dragnet could even ensnare a Lyft or Uber driver who unwittingly provides a pregnant woman a ride to an abortion clinic. Successful plaintiffs could receive up to $10,000 and have their legal fees covered by the state. While this mechanism was implemented to circumvent judicial precedent, it also serves to place a new weapon in the police state’s ever-expanding arsenal.
How did we get here?
After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration responded by greatly expanding warrantless surveillance operations. These were authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Services Act passed in 1976 allowing law enforcement agencies to conduct surveillance of American citizens through authorization from special FISA courts, foregoing traditional warrants.
Edward Snowden famously blew the whistle on the National Security Agency’s widespread use of this program in 2013, leading to widespread public outrage. But in April, the program was re-approved, in spite of ongoing concerns over its application.
Since 2001, federal authorities have also used the war on terror as justification for predatory investigations entrapping hapless citizens. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has directed informants to infiltrate online groups then participate in or even instigate the development of terroristic plots before swooping in to arrest co-conspirators.
The digital revolution has also given law enforcement more ability to track and monitor citizens. After the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot, law enforcement has used geo-tracking data to identify and prosecute suspects.
Even in cases where tech companies try to protect users’ data, law enforcement has proven adept at gaining access to supposedly secure data. After Apple refused to unlock the phones of the San Bernardino shooters in 2016, the FBI was able to contract with an Australian company to unlock the phones.
Law enforcement’s creep has not only been limited to the digital realm, either. Last year, during the protests following George Floyd’s murder, Department of Homeland Security officials used drones to help police departments monitor peaceful protesters. This action was ostensibly taken under the auspices of DHS’ prerogative to enforce immigration laws within 50 miles of the border but happened in 15 cities across the country.
Perhaps most disturbing of all though, law enforcement now has easy access to the DNA profiles of every American. This comes in the wake of the nationwide fad of genetic testing by companies such as 23 and Me. The upshot is that there are now servers containing the genetic code of enough Americans to allow law enforcement to effectively identify suspects through their relatives.
A warrant is required to access the databases of private companies that conduct the testing. But there are also websites where people publicly share their results, and these are fair game for law enforcement. It was one of these sites which led to the capture of the Golden State Killer in 2018.
This brings us back to Texas’s new law, a law that seeks to incentivize private citizens to spy and inform on each other with no repercussions for false accusations.
This legislation recalls the worst police states in history. It emulates the tactic of turning the populace on itself which proved devastatingly effective in Stalin’s purges, Mao’s Cultural Revolution or the Stasi’s heyday in East Germany.
Regardless of your feelings on abortion, cultivating a widespread culture of neighbor spying on neighbors rewarded by the state should be anathema to American sensibilities.
In the 20 years since Sept. 11, the state has continually expanded surveillance over its citizenry in impactful, disconcerting ways, yet there has been precious little pushback. It is beyond time for Americans to consciously decide which privacies we are willing to sacrifice for security and which we are not.