Tuesday, July 08, 2003

Total Information Wariness

The following passage from an article by Brian Doherty in the most recent Reason magazine caught my attention:
Most objections to [heightened concerns] about anonymity and privacy can be reduced to the familiar slogan: Only the Guilty Have Reason to Fear. … That slogan may be silly, but it’s important. Not because it settles any arguments, but because it delineates boldly what’s at stake. It also makes possible a similarly bold, clearly widely believed, yet rarely voiced response: We are all guilty, and we don’t want to live in a world where there is no room to get away with being guilty.
The significance of the point becomes clear when you consider the incredible array of things that are actually illegal, or have the potential to become illegal. If we could trust that information collected by the government would only be used to apprehend real terrorists, that would be one thing – maybe we’d be willing to let the government have “Total Information Awareness” for that one purpose. But we all know it won’t stop with terrorism. It will be used to apprehend drug sellers and users, prostitutes and johns, and perpetrators of so-called hate crimes. One day the list might include owners of guns. If it weren’t for the recent Supreme Court decision, the list could include sodomites.

And then there are the shelves of federal regulations with which individuals and businesses must comply (even without knowing their contents), the laws against sexual harassment, the laws against racial discrimination, ad infinitum. Given the sheer volume of these laws, combined with the built-in vagueness of many of them, and the conclusion is almost inescapable: we are all criminals now. And then consider the fact that law-enforcement officials have near total discretion to decide which laws will get prosecuted against whom, and you realize that a government with the goods on everyone is a government that can prosecute anyone it wants, any time it wants.

The moral here is that we should never evaluate a government policy in isolation. We should always judge it in light of other policies that we might or might not agree with. This is a principle that often cuts in favor of libertarian positions. For instance, we insist that proposals for national healthcare should be evaluated in light of the incentives they would create for regulation of lifestyle choices in the name of cost-control. But other times, the principle creates a problem for libertarians, because we cannot assume the existence of libertarian policies in other areas. In and of itself, the notion that the government should collect and centralize lots of information available from publicly available sources might seem no problem at all. Why would we make illegal for the government what is perfectly legal for a private eye? The problem is that information in the hands of government won’t be used to prosecute only those crimes that libertarians think should qualify. The same argument applies to three-strikes laws, mandatory minimum sentences, and a variety of other “tough on crime” measures: they’re great if applied only to real crimes, downright scary if applied to vices, faux pas, and personal foibles.

On re-reading this post, I realize it must seem incredibly paranoid. And perhaps it is. But I think the point is worth making: centralization of information in the hands of government is qualitatively different from the information simply being “out there” in the possession of umpteen different local governments, businesses, and doctors’ offices.

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