Dissents Of The Day, Ctd

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Readers continue to vent their disapproval of the NSA program:

Add my voice to the throngs who find your shrugs over this week’s news distressing and unlike you.  I would argue that as a society we can’t possibly be protected 100% from persons who have decided to harm others, and that intrusive attempts to do so are neither fruitful nor worthwhile.  Stephen Walt is correct that this “making us safer” argument can and will be used indiscriminately and that the “insecurity industry” has far-reaching consequences. One of the reasons I take you seriously is your capacity to acknowledge when you’ve miscalculated.  I do hope to see such a change of heart on issues like these.  After all, it must be a little distressing to find yourself in agreement with Kristol.  Also, it would be illuminating to see a Dishhead poll, to see how many readers agree with you and how many don’t.

Poll available above. I understand the worries. They’re completely legit. But if they forbid the entire use of Big Data by government, let’s be clear what the consequences are. Those big drops in crime because of more targeted enforcement? Too invasive to allow:

The police say they are tamping down retaliatory shootings between gang factions by using a comprehensive analysis of the city’s tens of thousands of suspected gang members, the turf they claim and their rivalries. The police are also focusing on more than 400 people they have identified as having associations that make them the most likely to be involved in a murder, as a victim or an offender.

And what about the Obama campaign? They are a political organization that used vast amounts of Big Data to find specific likely voters and get them to the polls. Can you imagine the potential for abuse there? So ban it there too, I suppose. And if Big Data is inherently susceptible to abuse, then we also have to end the following:

Baseball teams like Billy Beane’s Oakland A’s (immortalized in Michael Lewis’s best-seller “Moneyball”) have embraced new number-crunching approaches to scouting players with remarkable success… And New York City has used data analytics to find new efficiencies in everything from disaster response, to identifying stores selling bootleg cigarettes, to steering overburdened housing inspectors directly to buildings most in need of their attention.

That’s from a fascinating review today of a new book, Big Data. Again, in every single case, private or public, someone could manage somewhere to abuse it – for a personal vendetta, or political smear campaign, and on and on. And this collapse of what we once called “privacy” is simply going to grow and grow while outraged defenses of the privacy we once enjoyed, while fully understandable, will become, if they are not already, effectively moot. That’s the conundrum, as Ross recently observed. It’s not a totalitarian police state; it’s a soft ubiquitous, private and public surveillance state that we either participate in or withdraw from society altogether. I don’t like this much, but I fail to see how it can be stopped. And it makes something like the Fourth Amendment in desperate need of re-interpretation. I guess what I’m saying is that the data is there and always will be. The question is simply who has access to it. If only private entities do, then we need to stop all the obviously productive and efficient innovations that Big Data has produced to make government better. Yes, we absolutely need to have firmer safeguards, and we need to end the secrecy about this. But the notion that we can somehow protect ourselves from all of this seems utopian to me. Another reader:

In this post you responded to a dissenter who expressed concern about the reach about the PRISM programBos: “As long as you’re clear about what you’re doing and will not complain about the government next time a Tsarnaev sets off a bomb, fine.” That might be a fine argument except you seem to have forgotten that the PRISM program was in effect before the Boston bombing – and the bombing still occurred. So, if we have to make those “hard choices” between security and privacy, what exactly have we gained?  It appears that Boston would have happened even if no one ever thought of PRISM.  The decision wasn’t between security and privacy; it was about privacy and no privacy. But, even if Boston didn’t invalidate the usefulness of PRISM, your argument points to its even greater danger.  Wait until a child is abducted, a drug lord is on the loose, a fraudster is preying upon the elderly.  The cries demanding we stop tying the hands behind the backs of authorities will begin and we’ll hear the same refrain:  If you’ve nothing to hide, what’s the problem?  “As long as you’re clear you won’t complain the next time a kid goes missing, fine.” And finally, I’m not comforted in the fact that Congress approved the program.  I have no doubt that the program fits within the bounds of legality given the collusion of the three branches of government, but given the lack of credibility and trust the American people have in Congress wouldn’t it be the right thing to do (even if not the legally mandated one) to be a bit more explicit in exactly what we as Americans were giving up?


Let’s think about what’s happened in the past few years. Bradley Manning managed to illegally copy and distribute massive amounts of classified data to a guy who doesn’t exactly seem like a fan of the US. We have the IRS picking out conservative groups for extra attention. We have a federal official leaking information about North Korea to James Rosen. We have the most recent massive leaks. This is not a bureaucracy that exactly has a comforting track record of late. This is who you trust to keep our information private?


Although I vehemently disagree with the massive-scale data mining being undertaken, that’s not what concerns me about your reaction. What I find especially disturbing is that after all we have now discovered, you still seem to be buying the government line. In March, DNI James Clapper emphatically told Congress that the intelligence community wasn’t data mining domestically. Now we know that was a bald-faced lie (if only he had been under oath…).  Now, however, when President Obama says that the content of our emails is not being read, you believe him … um, why? No matter how many times President Obama or his aides lie, you seem ready to believe their mitigating explanation.

Ending the absurd secrecy around this would avoid those legally mandatory lies. And I favor ending the secrecy.