This isn't Jackboots, People! (Yet)

I find myself embattled with my usual crowd of political friends as I have taken the unpopular view that I think that Barack can be trusted to administer the NSA wiretapping and data collection programs properly.

There is one thing that I have read repeatedly, both in personal conversations and in the media, that I need to dismiss. That canard goes something like, "Sure, if we do these programs, we will eventually collar some bad guys. It would be even better if we allowed the police to search everyone's home."

This is a classic case of false equivalence. In fact, the entire Fourth Amendment, "unreasonable search" argument is slightly off, in my opinion. (Not, mind you, that I am entirely comfortable with government monitoring.)

There are two points I want to make. First, these programs are not actually interfering with your life in any way, as would a periodic search of your house. The phrase "unreasonable search" also includes "and seizure". While I am as enthusiastic as anyone about interpreting the Constitution in a modern context, looking at information that one leaves sitting around other people's computers is not comparable to jackboots stomping all over your carpets.

The other point is that, given my intent to charitable interpret the situation, I can easily see this more as 'community policing' than searching everyone's homes.

In the community policing model, cops are sent to basically  spend their lives in a neighborhood. The goal is that they can unobtrusively become aware of the nature of the community and its inhabitants so that they can, without having to hassle everyone, know who is causing problems and head off crimes before damage is done.

The knowledge in that neighborhood cops head is an uncontrolled, detailed set of information that could be used for good or evil. The NSA database could be characterized as analogous to that cop's awareness. Given proper controls, it could be seen as a way for defenders to see know what is going on in a way that allows an overview.

It could be providing a capability where, as the cop notices that a handful of young men are suddenly flashing rolls of cash with no apparent explanation, the NSA guy could see that there is phone traffic focusing on some location that procured unusual amounts of potentially explosive fertilizer recently.

For me, the whole thing is presently acceptable because I believe that the President has the good intentions, moral fortitude and discipline to administer the program fairly. That is, I am confident that this particular database is run according to a set of rules defined by a guy I trust.

For it to be acceptable in the long run, it has to be protected against the next George Bush. That is, legal rules must be created to turn abuse into a crime and establish permanent norms that prevent this tool from turning into a monster. That also means that the corporate databases from which the NSA derives it's database must be controlled as well, including responsibility for the uses to which their data is put by others, including the NSA.

This program is not going  away and I'm not sure that I want it to. I am sure that we do not have sufficient protections concerning the use of our personal data in any context, governmental or corporate. That should change.