Sunday, August 11, 2013

At What Price Kitten Videos?

I am not a civil libertarian, at least when it comes to government surveillance. The primary thing I have learned from the Edward Snowden affair is that the NSA is actually remarkably restrained and is actually snooping our data much less than I had previously assumed it was. Part of this is thanks to the Obama administration, which despite any flaws it might have in this matter, is decidedly better than the Bush administration had been.

In fact, with proper checks, balanced, and oversight, I would have no problem with domestic data being snooped, analyzed, and stored by the government in a widespread manner. It is not as if every last bit of our electronic communications is not already being snooped by numerous private corporations – an invasion of “privacy” that we are willing to trade for pennies-off discounts or a chance to see a new kitten video.  I wouldn’t be surprised if some of it was swept up by aggressive foreign governments as well.  To what end are we holding our own law enforcement agencies back?

Before you run off and start trying to quote Ben Franklin, let’s look at his actual quote

They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety”

Note that there are three qualifiers in that statement: “essential”, “little” and “temporary”. This quote is often abused and the qualifiers dropped, turning it into an absolutist statement that actually defies common sense. Without the qualifiers, the statement would logically imply that things like paying taxes to support a military, or speed limits, or airline or food safety regulations would be violations of Franklin’s maxim. This, of course, is absurd, and correspondingly we do in fact trade liberty for security all the time with little debate. The question is not whether we should ever trade liberty for security, but whether any particular trade is a good deal. Given that we are willing to sell our personal data for kitten videos, I find it pretty hard to buy the argument that we shouldn’t be willing to sell it for a substantial reduction in crime and terrorism.
Let’s not pretend that we can’t obtain security this way, either. It’s not hard to think of all sorts of real world examples of where ubiquitous data searching and storing would either prevent crimes, or afford their proper adjudication. For example, a book I recently read, People Who Eat Darkness, concerned a serial rapist in Tokyo, who was ultimately caught in 2001 in no small part due to cell phone tracking, which wasn’t possible for most of his spree that began in the 1980’s. His crime could not even be copied now due to improved surveillance and tracking. Or imagine if we had a recording of the phone call between Trayvon Martin and Rachel Jeantel. This recording would likely have either proven Zimmerman’s guilt, or clearly exonerated him. Instead, we are left in a state of a possibly-guilty man walking free but living in hiding, neither of which is optimal. Or simply imagine if the police could swiftly determine the identity of all nearby cars after a hit-and-run. There are countless similar examples.

I also fail to see the downsides to such a system of ubiquitous data analysis and collection. Yes, it is possible that an individual or small group within the NSA, FBI, CIA, etc could abuse the system for personal or partisan purposes, but is clear that there are systems in place to prevent this, and such behavior is indisputably illegal and would blowback a hundredfold onto any partisan group that tried it. Obviously, we need strong, transparent oversight from both the judicial branch and Congress, but I see little indication that these powers are being wielded irresponsibly and have a hard time even coming up with plausible scenarios where they could do much damage – certainly compared to the aforementioned serial rapist who raped hundreds of women and murdered two. Of course, there is the black helicopter argument: what happens if there is a total collapse of our democracy, and some evil dictator uses these powers for ill? To which I respond that such a hypothetical evil dictator will quickly obtain and implement such powers regardless of whether we do today or not. I don’t waste my time worrying about how to deal with WWIII or the zombie apocalypse and neither should you. The unknown unknowns of such a scenario dwarf any logic or reasoning we could apply to them today.

The big data genie is never going back into the bottle, and our data is and will be snooped by both public and private organizations. It is better to learn to harness this power, and install and monitor the proper oversight, than it is to tilt at windmills and shake our fists in vain. I, for one, welcome our new AI-XkeyScore-Googleplex-NSAFBICIA overlords.