Further to my last piece, on the unsurprising facts that people with access to others' personal information use that access for any reason, including ordinary curiosity, a topical example has cropped up:
Helen Jones-Kelley, director of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, disclosed today that computer inquiries on Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher were not restricted to a child-support system.
The agency also checked Wurzelbacher in its computer systems to determine whether he was receiving welfare assistance or owed unemployment compensation taxes, she wrote.
(Wurzelbacher, aka "Joe the Plumber" is currently enjoying 15 minutes of fame for asking Obama awkward questions in public)
While the searching of government databases on Joe is less surprising than that it was found out, its ordinariness makes it more significant. You can get away with a lot these days, provided you keep your head down. But stick your head over the parapet, by becoming an activist, or falling out with a government official of some kind, and you know that you will suddenly be subject to a degree of scrutiny that would otherwise be easily avoidable. I think that is a key reason why we do not have the democratic ideal of the "politically involved layman" - the risks involved in politics are too great to be taken on lightly; they're only worth it if you are prepared to devote yourself to activism in a major way. It's a soft barrier, but its one more barrier between the political class and the rest of us.