Friday, 12 May 2006

Knowledge, Security, Privacy, & Trust

The NSA's newly revealed database of phone call records won't generate any outrage from me. I felt the wiretapping uncovered a few months ago was clearly illegal, and holding Congressional hearings on that was appropriate. But really my concern is not with the surveillance so much as with its potential misuse. If our government was composed of gods, it wouldn't really be troubling if every secret was known, but it is of course composed of human beings so requiring documented justification for surveillance is certainly reasonable. If the government has to be more open about its activities, that prevents it from abusing the privilege. When secrecy is rampant already, I don't buy the argument that eliminating oversight is necessary for security. Indeed security is damaged if insiders become compromised through bribery or self-interest, and that secrecy is used to protect those from whom it is supposed to protect us. The FISA solution made a lot of sense by providing oversight without wide knowledge, and so the Administration's bypassing of it requires more public oversight in spite of any perceived risk.

This newly revealed program which gives access to a database which can be queried if real terrorist numbers are discovered, sounds like a very defensible program in the right context, but Bush defenders should hardly be surprised that it arouses major suspicion in the context of a secretive administration which regularly flouts the law, misleads the public, and manipulates the press. Still I want to be careful about flying off the handle and declaring that the existence of this database is an outrage. It is not. Misuse of the database might range from somewhat unethical to truly outrageous, but the potential for it to be used only in the interest of security does exist, and I wouldn't want to deny the method forever and for all time simply based on my mistrust of Bush and his minions.

What I really want is a government I can trust. Imagine a program where every infant born or immigrant to our shores got DNA sequenced and that information was retained in a secure database for future medical decisions and law enforcement. That would frighten most libertarians and civil libertarians to the core, and with good reason. But ideally it would be a wonderful asset if guarding against its misuse were taken seriously, and we could feel assured that it would only be used appropriately. This would be great, not only for victims, but for the wrongly accused, where DNA evidence could exonerate them. And what a deterrent to crime when you know that any found DNA can pinpoint you to a scene or weapon. In the long run it would be worth developing the system to guard the system against misuse, in order to benefit from it. I'm not going to push for it any time real soon, however.

Having a searchable database which records billions of phone call records is pretty small potatoes on the Big Brother meter, certainly compared to my DNA suggestion above. Rather than going ape over its existence, I believe the appropriate response is to continue to demand accountability by the executive branch for how it uses any such program. There may be cases where approval of further surveillance needs to be done by a secret court such as FISA, but approval needs to come from independently created sources which shouldn't be too chummy with those making the requests, and there is a strong case to be made that FISA is not sufficiently independent. That the NSA bypassed the required step in the earlier revealed wiretapping, in spite of that, feeds the distrust that more and more Americans are feeling for the current crop of leaders.


Anonymous said...

where is the reasonable cause to gather the data?
without that in the first step then it is illegal and compromises the rest of the process,

Scottage said...

I have to agree. The development of an advanced infromation network is the only real defense against terrorism, and Bush's investment in centralized infrastructure is really the best hope at a positive legacy from the administration that will never end. The information needs to be communicated between departments, and the pooling of knowledge from various enforcement agencies is a crucial step towards success.

But the Bush administration has continually violated the public's trust. There are specific checks and balances established for expiditing approval of these wiretaps, and yet Bush has ignored these and circumvented the entire system. And yes, that worries me. I look forward to the day where we can trust our government to protect our civil liberties again.

Anonymous said...

Yesterday it was reported that the illegally acquired calling records are already being used in a very inappropriate manner by the federal government. They are using them to investigate and stifle news reports about illegal federal activities.

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