Big Data, or Big Brother?

I don’t know what you think of the recent revelations about the extreme-seeming scope of the U. S. anti-terror people’s telephone data collection. I’m of two minds, which is an uncomfortable position at the best of times.

It seems that “impending real attacks” have been thwarted by the surveillance. That’s a good thing, isn’t it? But do we really need to let the government into every detail of our lives? I say “our” even though I’m in Canada, for I have no illusions that Stephen Harper has ever hesitated to share and share alike with the Americans. He’s a natural control freak in the first place, and a sycophantic neighbour into the bargain.

I don’t have the libertarians’ conviction that any government is too much government. There are things that governments need to know about us in order to serve us best. I want the government to know how much money everybody makes, so that we can tax people fairly and provide necessary social services. I want the government to know who owns what kinds of weapons, and how many, so that we can better control the violence in our lives. At the same time, I don’t see why the government should need to know, all the time, my location and what I’m doing, much less my beliefs and my friends. Am I now or have I ever been a member of any group, club, church, clan, or clutch that makes any government operative curious, or nervous? None of your damn business, buddy.

For me it’s a matter not of whether or not the government gets to know about me but rather of how much, and what kinds, of information can be collected — and for what purposes.

I am one of the many, many people who keep asking themselves, “Would I be comfortable if my political foes were doing the data collection?” For those of  us on the left, the fearful scenario would have a George W. Bush or a Rick Santorum on the other end of the earphone. For many of those on the right, their worst nightmare is that the Muslin socialist Obama is listening in on them. If there are circumstances in which everyone would be uncomfortable, doesn’t that suggest that there are likely no circumstances that are entirely neutral, or equitable?

There’s also a distinction between data collection over which we have some say, however slight, and data collection that’s truly surreptitious. I know that when I use my credit or debit card, or my supermarket club card, information about me is being collected. In the extreme, if that bothers me too much, I can always carry cash and never go online. Not perfect, but a much more anonymous lifestyle. And I know that every time I cross the border into the U.S., I’m subjecting myself to various kinds of scrutiny. If I don’t want to be screened and scanned by the border police, I don’t have to go there. I have control, at least negative control. But when I’m on hidden camera, or hidden microphone, all day and every day, how do I maintain privacy if I don’t want just to hunker down under the covers forever?

The problem is that I don’t have any sympathy for political murderers (whether they’re suicide bombers or the American military operators of stealth drones). So I’d really like to see someone stop terror attacks, just as I’d really like to see someone stop unilateral and self-serving wars. How to do it without surveillance? How do we balance relative security and relative freedom? It’s a tough problem, but in the end I believe that there must be more sophisticated ways to monitor potential threats than to treat everyone as a possible suspect. That we have the technology to check everything and everybody is not sufficient grounds for doing so.

I guess that means that I’d rather live with a bit more threat and a bit more privacy, if I had a choice.

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