...to find "dark under belly" just outside of Cleveland, or "arrogant indifferent leader" in Russia...
I'm as much a fan of privacy rights as the next guy, but at the same time I recognize that there probably is some real intelligence value in being able to analyze the networks and online transactions of 'known or suspected terrorists'. It seems to me that what the Government is trying to do here is provide a 'data mart' of sorts that includes all data, but only allowing queries against said data with warrants in place, and some level of assurance that the targeted individuals are outside the US (such as to be in compliance with FISA). In other words, the Gov't may in fact be doing what it legitimately believes is right, and in fact what the citizenry demands and expects of it.
To me, the problem is that the checks and balances associated with what they're doing are all 'secret' and ripe for abuse. I'm not alleging that abuses are in fact taking place, but it is a slippery slope as currently constructed, and it would not be surprising at all to hear that abuses have taken place.
I view this as a 21st century parallel to many of the arguments made by the framers of the constitution. The Gov't has a legitimate right to establish and arm a police force, but placing the police force under civilian control, with budgets and oversight provided by various levels of local, state, and federal government as well as the legislative and judicial branches establishes a system of checks and balances that for the most part keeps police forces working for the good of society and prevents most (but certainly not all) abuses of police authority. And that, to my way of seeing things, is what is missing from these discussions. I think we have to acknowledge the Gov'ts right (and in fact duty) to collect this sort of information, because it has legitimate value in protecting the citizenry. What we should be pushing for is a more robust system of checks and balances and more transparency into the ways it is used. The gathering of this information by agents of the government isn't any more 'evil' than is the arming of agents of the government. Both have legitimate governmental purposes - to protect the citizenry. What is missing in the case of gathering of mass quantities of data on the citizens is a system of checks and balances and a level of transparency that fosters trust in how it is being used. That, in my opinion, is what we should be fighting for.
It strikes me now, perhaps due to recent events, that there is perhaps less philosophical difference between 'information' and 'arms' in today's world than many would allow. Just as weaponry can be used to liberate or oppress, so too can information. No matter how you look at it, we, as a society, have granted the government a 'monopoly on violence'. In the interest of pursuing the greater good, we grant the Government our trust, such that it alone is able to use violence, and we take that right (if one could call it that) away from the individual. The government can create police forces, use threats of violence to incarcerate people for violating laws, etc. Sure, there are abuses occasionally (police brutality, wrongful imprisonment) but for the most part the tradeoff is beneficial to all. Far better for the Gov't, with adequate checks and balances, to be the sole administrator of violence in society than to have a system of vigilante justice and local militias.
The key phrase there, though, is 'adequate checks and balances'.
With information, I see things in much the same way. We count on, and in fact demand that our government to protect us from threats, both internal and external. As the world becomes more interconnected, it would be foolish to think that this could be adequately done without access to privileged information. Who is taking flight lessons, and who is paying for them? Why did four moving trucks leave the church and head to the football game, 2 days after one of the church-members purchased 2 tons of ammonium nitrate? Oh, he's a farmer and he makes similar purchases annually, and today is the annual church tailgate event? Fine. Other situations one can easily imagine? Not so fine.
The point is that if one removes their tinfoil hat for a moment, one realizes that access to privileged information and a means to integrate multiple stores of data is a valid (and necessary) means for the Gov't to protect the citizenry of the country in the way that we, as a society, demand. We certainly don't want private citizens or corporations with authority to access that data, just as we don't really want armed gangs enforcing their version of justice. It is an explicit tradeoff of individual privacy and the common good.* The problem, as I see it, is that the institutions which would provide the checks and balances necessary to justify our trust in the Gov't having a monopoly on information are not nearly as mature as those that protect us from Governmental abuses of force. There are no Miranda rights, ACLU's, or hierarchical court systems by which to air grievances and have them heard in some semblance of an unbiased fashion.
That said, I do believe that a framework is possible that would provide enough transparency to enable trust, while still providing the Gov't enough capability to assist in ensuring the public safety. I don't know exactly what it would look like, but these would be some of the tenants I'd start with:
- 7 year horizon on data (i.e. no individual piece of data can be stored by the Gov't on private citizens longer than this time, and algorithms can't have access to data older than this)
- For a reasonable fee, the right of all citizens to view their own records and challenge the information contained within (kind of like credit agencies, but 'better')
- Civilian organizations charged with verifying the integrity of algorithms and data stores
* For those who would quote Franklin, "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety", I offer another quote: "Fuck off". This isn't about giving up your rights. It is about entrusting the Government with a monopoly on certain types of privileged information, just as we grant them authority to establish police forces, and other executive functions. We are talking about the same Government, by the way, that you already trust with your life every time you get on an elevator without checking the inspection certificate, proceed through a green light without validating the algorithm, or drink water from a public source. To me, accessing and mining private information is something the Gov't *should* be doing. I just want to see more transparency and more impartial institutions to give us more reason to trust them with this power.