Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Michael: Orwell's Legacy

I just finished reading "No Place to Hide" by Dan Solove. In his book Solove details the many ongoing efforts by our government to partner with private information brokers who are forming a new information-security complex in the name of servicing the marketing needs of corporate America and its customers. Governments are seeking to exploit the growing mass of informational detritus that each of us sheds in the course of our everyday lives in an effort to detect and predict criminal behavior. This effort pervades our government, from the NSA, CIA, DIA, FBI and TSA all the way down to state and municipal police forces. All are intent upon becoming ‘domestic intelligence agencies’ focused upon detecting criminal behavior in the massive amount of commercial and confidential data the IT revolution has placed within their reach. The ‘War on Terror’ is a convenient and powerful justification for compiling massive dossiers on every citizen, but the desire to control crime and to quash political opposition plays a pervasive and seductive role in their grab for ever more information about you and your activities.

Every aspect of your life, your medical records, your personal relationships, your spending habits, the kind of pornography you like, where you travel, what you buy, your intimate conversations, your image as you move about your daily life, are all increasingly being recorded, sifted, and massaged to determine your demographic profile and what you might want to buy. This allows marketers to reach you more efficiently and predict your needs and tastes, but when the government accesses the same information, as they inevitably will, the result is Big Brother. There is nothing overtly sinister about the collection of these details of our lives by companies like SeisInt, LexisNexis, Axiom, and others, but when the many databases of information are drawn together by intellegent agents, profiling software in massively quick computers and distributed throughout government without proper accountability or transparency, the result is often an Orwellian nightmare for those who are mistakenly, or maliciously, mistargeted by government authorities.

Solove provides no ready solutions for the growing problem he skillfully profiles, but one is left with the impression that the law desperately needs to catch up to the reality of a rapidly maturing dataveilence capability in our government. It is here is where artistic vision and political wisdom steps into the policy void. Just denying government these tools isn’t likely to work, even if it were a desirable goal. Governments increasingly needs a greater ability to dataveil the populace as an effective and practical means of investigating and preventing criminal activity. The problem is one of asymetric capability and lack of oversight over the new powers that the internet, cheap data capture, and data mining gives our government. David Brin forsaw these developments when he wrote his book "The Transparent Society’ in 1997. He opines that attempting to cut off the flow of detailed information about citizens to the government would ultimately fail (if the private sector has the ability, the government will certainly acquire it, too), and it would probably be harmful if the effort to restrict the governement’s access were to succeed in any meaningful way. Better if we can watch the watchers and have access to what they have access to in order to monitor use and correct mistakes. Nobody would have any secrets, but no one would be at a disadvantage visa-vis the government’s capabilities, or those who could afford those capabilities for themselves. Better that everyone share in these new capabilities, building a new bulwark of checks and balances into our society, than to allow new inequities and illicit sources of social control to arise from controlling access to these new tools.


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