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I had a scary conversation with a couple of co-workers a few minutes ago. We were discussing the court ruling by a New York judge yesterday which declared secret subpoenas called “National Security Letters” unconstitutional.

The concensus of the sales floor was this: Why worry about it if you have nothing to hide?

Here’s why:

The letters can be used to find the senders of anonymous e-mail messages, or the hosts of chat rooms, for example, and are issued without judicial oversight. The bar on disclosing these secret subpoenas is so broad that it could even apply to discussions with a lawyer.

The secret subpoenas originated with a bill written in 1986 by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). which allowed the FBI to issue national security letters to telecommunications companies and Internet Service Providers against those suspected of being agents of a foreign power.

The scope of that power was broadened by the first PATRIOT Act to include any information considered relevant to counterterrorism investigations, and included a wider range of businesses that could be subpoenaed, such as insurance firms, pawnbrokers, precious metal dealers, the Postal Service, casinos, and travel agents.

The danger in allowing the government to dig into the lives of American citizens without warrants is that government rarely gives back power without a struggle. It’s usually just the opposite.

Why does the reaction of my co-workers bother me? It’s because the government doesn’t need to implement a police state all at once. It only needs good people, like the guys I work with, to believe that each new incursion across the constitutional barrier is necessary for our safety–and besides, we have nothing to worry about if we have nothing to hide.

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