Reining in the Power of Government Data Collection

Posted: July 19, 2013 in Economics, Government, Morality, Politics

How can we find a balance between the government collection of all kinds of data on every person that seems to violate our sense of privacy and a perceived need to collect data for use to reduce the threat of terrorism?  I have an idea of how this could be more acceptable.

The perceived threat for the average Joe is that innocent coincident of data about us can be misinterpreted to point to illegal activity and used in court or a plea bargain to establish guilt for something for which we are not guilty.  Furthermore, because of a need for secrecy, we might be denied access to the full set of data or how it was obtained in order to defend ourselves.  Yet, it is reasonable that the ability to comb through data from many sources can be useful in discovering planning for illegal activities, even to prevent terrorist actions that could harm many people.

The fact is, we have demonstrated over and over that we do not have a problem with collection and mining of data about ourselves.  Most people willingly provide all sorts of data and information about themselves that corporate interests use to market to us.  We are happy enough to get a discount by using a store credit card or the convenience in general of using credit and debit cards.  On line commercial transactions would be nearly impossible without them.  Although we might complain about pop-up adds or Amazon’s analysis of our purchasing habits, for example, we still take advantage of modern technology.  So how could we strike a balance.

I would propose that restrictions on how collected data might be used would go a long way to alleviating our concerns about government being in the data collection business.  The restriction I would propose is to prohibit retrospective data to be presented in a court of law.  If the government wants to collect and use data to prosecute a “innocent until proven guilty” person, they would need to go to a judge or grand jury and get a warrant to prospectively collect court admissible data on  a justifiable basis.  They might use retrospectively collected data to get the warrant, but that retrospective data could not be used in prosecuting a case, only data collected after a warrant was issued.

What this would mean is that you and I need not be concerned about the widespread collection of data in that it could not be used by the government to retrospectively manipulate the information to determine our guilt.  They might use it in an interrogation, but could not use it as evidence in court.  They could not mine collected data to incriminate a person they had in custody as proof of guilt, only data that was collected specifically after an individual, not all of us, was suspected and for which a warrant was granted.

Lets assume for a moment that suspicion develops about one or more people.  Being able to go back and look at data that has been collected can be of great help in assessing a possible threat.  It is this “going back” that seems to me to be most dangerous.  That would mean that all historical data, data prior to a warrant, the data that led to going to a judge would not be admissible.  It would be useful in protecting us, but preserve our innocence until proven guilty.

What do you think?

Cecil

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