Thursday, May 11, 2006

How Data Mining Saved Our Lives

George Bush appears to be defending the mass collection of telephone information as a necessary step in the "war against terror" (in quotes because you can't have a war against a feeling or against a bunch of people rather than countries). The idea is that there have been no new attacks on American soil because the NSA had access to your chats with Uncle Elmer about his varicose veins and your drinking habits or whatever, and 911 changed everything.

This argument needs to be clarified and exposed to the cruel light of logic before we all fly away on its back. Suppose that in the "war against rape" the government decided to put all men under house arrest and to collect DNA samples from every one of them. Surely this would cut rape rates to very low levels. Surely it would be worth doing then?

Or we could ban guns completely and check every house to remove them. Lots of lives would be saved. Lots.

Or we could ban driving. Then there would be no more traffic accidents!

But we don't do any of these things, and the reasons have to do with how far we are willing to compromise between security on the one hand and freedom and the rights of innocent individuals on the other.

Thus, the crucial point is not that taking draconic measures might have saved lives. The crucial point is to decide what draconic measures are and when we have reached an unacceptable level of government surveillance.