Kaus' Kwestion About Databasificationism


Mickey Kaus comments thus on the "amazing June issue" of Reason:

Declan McCullagh punctures overblown, panicky privacy concerns about database-mining by private companies. But when it comes to government data mining, he gets a bit panicky and overblown himself, conjuring up fears of a "police state" and engaging in some scare-mongering about the "massive Total Information Awareness project that John Poindexter tried to put together" as well as a Justice department plan to obtain a database of "Americans' names, addresses, previous addreses, places of employment, spouses' names, and Social Security numbers."

Asks Mickey:

I don't understand why I should be so complacent about having Microsoft connect my name, address, etc. with other available private data but so terrified of the Homeland Security Agency doing the same thing. With all due respect, what the Homeland Security Agency is trying to stop (Al Qaeda) is rather more threatening than what Microsoft is trying to stop (Linux).

I realize that, as a Slate staffer, Mickey gets a paycheck from Microsoft and hence may have insider's knowledge of that corporation's secret, sinister designs.

But for starters, here's two reasons to sweat DHS more than MS: There's an opt-out option when it comes to Microsoft. Nobody has to do business with them (not yet, anyway), anymore than they have to do business with any other company that asks for private information in exchange for lower prices or more customized service.

Beyond that, Microsoft (and other companies) is compiling information not to surveil you but to sell you (yeah, yeah, there is a strong digital rights management component to some of MS's registration policies but there are also alternatives to any product they offer). The government collects data for very different reasons and has a very weak record in terms of respecting privacy (or being efficient for that matter, as this great Reason story about possible national I.D. cards details).

As important, Declan McCullagh's story doesn't deny that the government has some legitimate reasons to surveil suspected wrongdoers. Rather it quite sensibly calls for the updating and narrowing of laws allowing the government to do so:

That means taking steps such as updating the Privacy Act of 1974 to limit government access to outsourced databases; increasing the authority of inspectors general at federal agencies to monitor data abuses; boosting criminal penalties for lawbreaking cops; requiring police to meet higher standards of proof before perusing databases; and, most important, rethinking the drug laws that invite snooping into Americans' personal lives. (About 78 percent of domestic wiretaps conducted with court oversight in 2002 were for drug offenses. Investigations of violent crimes such as murder, kidnapping, and extortion accounted for just 6 percent.)

As someone who crawled Sunset Strip back in the heyday of the Doors and Love, Mickey is old enough to remember Vietnam, Watergate, the Church hearings and other key events that destroyed any faith that the government can be trusted to do the right thing. The fashions might have changed since the Kauster air-guitared to "Seven & Seven Is," but any government that would put Arthur Lee in jail for something other than his solo records hasn't earned the benefit of the doubt.