Yes, Universal Government Snooping Is A Problem

I don't mean to brag, but on May 1 in a post entitled  "Things The Government Gets Wrong by 180 Degrees -- Privacy" I did write:

[Y]ou have no choice but to assume that the government is monitoring all your financial transactions and phone calls behind your back. 

And sure enough, the big news of the past week is that, yes, the government is indeed monitoring all of your financial transactions and telephone calls behind your back.   Oh, and add to that, all of your e-mails and other use of the internet.  I didn't mention those pieces only because they were so obvious as to go without saying.

The government's defense, articulated by the President on Friday June 7, is basically that this is necessary to guard you against terrorism and we have all kinds of oversight and protections in place, which, unfortunately, we can't tell you about.   You may be surprised to hear that I give that defense some credit.  Guarding the people against terrorism is actually one of the few constitutionally legitimate things that the Federal government does.  I take an extremely skeptical view of whether it is necessary or useful for the Federal government to monitor all of everyone's financial transactions, phone calls, and internet activity in order to guard against terrorism, but I don't have all the information needed to make an informed decision, nor any way to get the information to become informed.

But there are very serious problems with the government monitoring all the activities of everyone all the time.  The main one is, they are just not capable of resisting the temptation to misuse the information for political advantage.  And make no mistake, the information is highly valuable for political purposes, in two ways.  First, this detailed information is useful in providing those in power with particulars on who their voters are, to enable the more precise direction of advertising and more effective get-out-the-vote efforts.  Information advantages deriving from the vast trove of data could easily be worth 5 to 10% of the vote, plenty to swing close elections. 

More perniciously, the information can be used to target and destroy political adversaries.  It could easily be used to uncover such things as old extra-marital affairs, or visits to illicit internet sites, by political adversaries, to be leaked at a critical moment on the eve of an election.  Or for that matter, to commence an investigation or a prosecution against an adversary.  Professor Jacobson points out the linkage between the vast data mining exercise and the "everything is a crime" world view that motivates today's Federal criminal code, where felonies include hundreds of things you would never imagine, from installing a toilet with greater than 1.8 gallon flush to spreading a dump truck load of dirt on a wet spot on your property where mosquitoes are breeding.  The gun laws are enormously complex and almost impossible to comply with perfectly.  James Rosen of Fox News learned recently that his newsgathering was characterized as a Federal felony in a Justice Department affidavit seeking court approval for access to his personal information.  You may think that you are law-abiding, but you may be regularly committing multiple Federal felonies that you never imagined existed. 

Some supporters of the data mining program are surprisingly naive about its dangers.  Take for example, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, which today downplays the significance of the data mining with this response: 

[T]he paradox of data-mining is that the more such information the government collects the less of an intrusion it is.  These data sets are so large that only algorithms can understand them.  the search is for trends, patterns, associations, networks.  They are not in that sense invasions of individual privacy at all.

Well, what exactly keeps them from putting the words "Mitt Romney" or "Rand Paul" or "Ted Cruz" into their search algorithm and seeing what comes up?  The answer is, nothing.  Remember that J. Edgar Hoover famously gathered dirt on Martin Luther King for purposes of using it when it became politically advantageous.  Now the potential dirt is all pre-gathered.  But only those in power have access.

Meanwhile, just as this data mining scandal is getting some play, there are two vast expansions of Federal data gathering in the works, with few even paying attention.  One is the so-called "border security" provisions of the proposed immigration reform bill, containing provisions intended to make it impossible to work in the United States without data on employer and employee being entered in the vast Federal data trove.  The other is Obamacare, by which all medical records are to be added.  There's one with tremendous potential in political opposition research!  

Well, rollback of this stuff is not going to happen any time soon.  What you need is advice on how to foil it!   Here from Kit Lange of Victory Girls is the latest on how to use the telephone and the internet without reporting your every move to your FBI minder.  In the financial arena, the simple answer is to use cash.  I wonder when they are going to move to make that illegal.