Tuesday, May 16, 2006

paranoid solipsists need not apply

Heather Mac Donald
c/o The Weekly Standard
1150 17th Street NW, Suite 505
Washington, DC 20036

May 16, 2006

Ms. Mac Donald,

It never ceases to amaze me how so-called conservatives who in other contexts decry "big government" somehow manage to vigorously embrace and defend the NSA phone call database, what one of USA Today's sources has called "the largest database ever assembled in the world" and certainly something Orwell could not have imagined in his worst nightmare.

Your missive "Information Please: Only a paranoid solipsist could feel threatened by the calling analysis program" (Weekly Standard, 22 May
2006) is filled with all the right reactionary buzzwords and hyperbole -- evoking the "ecstatic frenzy of denunciation and fear-mongering" by "privacy nuts" and "privacy extremists [who] enjoy unchallenged supremacy" -- but unfortunately the logic you would use to challenge them is also reactionary. And wrong.

Your first defense of this biggest of big government domestic surveillance programs -- and let's not quibble about whether or not data mining itself is surveillance or an increasingly integral part of an overall surveillance program -- relies on a series flawed assumptions. First, you claim the anonymity of the data being mined is maintained, presumably throughout its life in the database, even though you admit, in classic two-wrongs-make-a-right fashion, that "the government can de-anonymize the data" because "your phone company at the very least--if not a score of marketers--knows your calling history; that history is no longer private." Clearly, thanks to the good old free market, any pretenses towards maintaining anonymity here can be safely eliminated.

Your second defense of big government surveillance is that non-sentient computers are doing the mining rather than human beings. "The computer does not have a clue that you exist," you tell us reassuringly, "it does not know what it is churning through; your phone number is meaningless to it." Precisely the problem. While human intelligence is capable of reason, inference, speculation, intuition and so many other qualities that help minimize errors and protect against abuses, a computer alogrithm indeed "does not have a clue that you exist" and "does not know what it is churning through," thus making it all the more unlikely (if not altogether unable) to hesitate, change its mind, backtrack, reconsider, acknowledge or correct mistakes, in short, protect human interests. One need not be a paranoid solipsist to have concerns here.

Your third defense of big government surveillance is, ironically, its bigness, that the sheer enormity of the database protects the information from being abused, "render[ing] the image of individualized snooping so absurd." This is itself absurd, not only because the scenario you've already outlined, one of "supercharged computers to work analyzing patterns among the four trillion numbers involved in the two trillion calls" in search of "clusters that might suggest terrorist connections," already "renders the image of individualized snooping absurd." And again I'm not sure how a political philosophy of limited government enables you take comfort in this vision of "the NSA's supercomputers churning through trillions of zeros and ones representing disembodied phone numbers," a kind of safety-in-numbers digital dragnet that sounds surprisingly like the dehumanized automation of Soviet gulags that bonafide conservatives used to denounce on principle.

You're right in one respect though, Ms. Mac Donald: this president's "credibility, after the previous denials of data mining and failure to clarify its character, is, to say the least, weak." And if he wants to lose what little shred of credibility he has left among only his most die-hard supporters and not hand subpoena power to a Deomcratic-led House and Senate in November, I encourage him to adopt your flawed lines of argument, which I'm sure will win big with the American public.

1 comment:

Aldon Lynn Nielsen said...

Tom -- Is this the same Heather MacDonald who's a poet????