Thursday, June 13, 2013

Bad Arguments In Favor Of Government Data-Mining

Suppose my wife were to discover that I'd secretly been checking into a hotel room each afternoon for a few hours when I was supposed to be at work. After being discovered, I say to my wife, "I welcome a discussion of what I've been doing." That would sound peculiar, to say the least. My wife could say, "If you welcome the discussion, why did you do it in secret?"

Obama and the various senators who approved the government's electronic dragnet of phone records are now saying exactly the same thing. Having conceived of this program in secret, briefed select members of Congress in secret, and implemented it in secret, we are now told that they welcome the discussion. But when you go to extraordinary lengths to hide your activities, it's disingenuous to claim that you welcome the discussion.

The government data-mining operation is not just frightening; it's deeply immoral. Now that the initial shock has worn off, various people are defending the program. But the arguments in favor of it are very odd.

Thomas Friedman -- representing the liberal wing of the New York Times -- has just written an essay defending the program. His argument is interesting. Friedman imagines what would happen if there were another 9-11 attack, and quite justifiably worries that there would be an overreaction that would result in taking away our civil liberties. He writes:
...I believe that if there is one more 9/11 — or worse, an attack involving nuclear material — it could lead to the end of the open society as we know it. If there were another 9/11, I fear that 99 percent of Americans would tell their members of Congress: “Do whatever you need to do to, privacy be damned, just make sure this does not happen again.” That is what I fear most.
For the sake of argument, let's grant Friedman's assumption that another attack would cause the end of "open society as we know it", despite the fact that the 9-11 attacks did not. His argument is that, by putting up with some loss of privacy, we increase the chances that our society remains open and free. On balance, Friedman thinks the trade-off is acceptable. Of course, the argument only works if the data-mining operation would have increased the chance the the original 9-11 attack would have been averted. But did that attack happen because we lacked the raw intelligence necessary to avert it? Of course not. On August 6, 2001 -- just a few weeks before 9-11 -- President Bush was briefed on information pointing to the impending attacks. Further investigations have shown, over and over again, that our government had enough information to act against Al Qaeda, but didn't. In short, nobody has ever claimed that we could have averted those terrible events if only we had been collecting everyone's phone records.

We're getting some rhetoric that people who are opposed to the government's data-mining operation are acting as if 9-11 never happened. But quite the opposite. We're recognizing that 9-11 did happen, and we're remembering why it happened. It happened because of a failure in our political leadership, and because of structural issues in our intelligence agencies. A lack of technical abilities and raw data were not to blame. Human beings were to blame.

A particularly audacious piece of rhetoric that we're also getting is that the Boston marathon bombing shows that we need this data-mining program. This is audacious because we already had the data-mining program for years prior to the bombing. Either the data-mining is irrelevant to the Boston bombing, or else the bombing shows that the data-mining is ineffective against that sort of threat.

We've also been hearing arguments that serious invasions of privacy or other abuses of this information haven't occurred, and so we shouldn't be too worried about such possibilities. But again, an application of common sense shows that this argument is unsound. The program is secret, and was just recently revealed. Perhaps there haven't been any abuses, but we're not in a position to know that. Surely, it's premature to claim that we understand how this data is used. I hope that supporters of of this initiative are right, but the only rational stance to take on this issue is that the jury is still out (and is likely to be out for a long time).

I've already written that in order for such a program to work, it absolutely must lead to more intrusive surveillance of large numbers of innocent people. This is because, if such a program is to identify suspicious people for further investigation, it will necessarily have a large number of "false positives". In order to catch actual terrorists, the net must be cast wide enough to take in many more innocent people. And if intrusive surveillance of thousands of innocent Americans is considered an "abuse" or an "invasion of privacy", then that's what we're signing up for.

In short, the arguments in favor of this program actually show that it's likely to be ineffective; claims that it hasn't been abused are totally unsupportable; and in order for such a program to work, it is committed to invading the privacy of thousands of innocent Americans. That's why this program is immoral.