Are privacy rights violated if only a robot is looking?

This is the question on the strategy page. Other good points are raised as will in Paranoia, Terrorism and Data Mining March 4, 2006.

Many people aren’t concerned with robots watching what they do, or have done. But American law, and the courts that interpret it, still give privacy rights primacy even if no humans are involved in the surveillance. It wasn’t always that way.

Privacy rights have become a growing issue since World War II. But, since September 11, 2001, it’s become obvious that protecting those rights can get people killed. …

Privacy in the modern world is a misunderstood concept. While the law keeps the government from using many forms of information, or information searching, for law enforcement or national security, there are far fewer restrictions on commercial use of similar data and tools. … And then there’s data mining, an old technique that, as long ago as the 1970s, was used to identify and arrest terrorists in Germany. Yet the same techniques today are seen by the law as an assault on privacy rights. …

Meanwhile, data mining has been used by commercial firms for decades to sort out who to sell to.

What it comes down to is people not trusting their government, or at least trusting banks and credit card companies more than politicians. …

The distrust of politicians and government officials rests on attitudes more than facts. There’s far more abuse of databases by private individuals than by government officials (who are more likely to get caught and prosecuted.) …

But the fear is great, just like the irrational fear of nuclear power plants, alongside a tolerance for much more dangerous coal and oil fired plants. It’s why people feel safer driving to an airport, than when they fly off on an aircraft. It’s more dangerous to travel in the car, but we’re not talking about logic and truth here, but emotion and fears that can be exploited.

But now robots are doing the searching, and suddenly the fears are going away. …

But trying to make the same case for data mining databases in search of terrorists, even when nearly all the work is done by robots, still raises the hackles of civil libertarians who see this as an infringement on privacy. The government can’t be trusted, even though there is no track record of government abuse in this area. …

It’s not just an American problem. In the 1970s, after German police used data mining to shut down a lethal bunch of leftist terrorists, the data mining program was dismantled, lest some bureaucrat do some unnamed, but really terrible, mischief. The terrorists are back, and the police have had to carefully sneak back in the data mining tools.

The same thing is happening in the United States. With paranoid lawyers at their sides, for protection, intelligence agencies are using data mining in innovative ways that catch the terrorists, while keeping the data miners out of jail. So far. Members of Congress who have been briefed have let the roundabout methods pass, for now. Members of Congress have been known to suddenly develop amnesia if something they have let pass suddenly becomes a war crime in the struggle to protect privacy.

This is not a new phenomena, either. Some hold to the charms of the small community where everyone new everyone else and any anomolous behavior was quickly noticed. The sharing of knowledge generated social bonding and trust. But no longer. Now the knowing about others, especially if the government is doing the knowing, is treated with suspicion.

The fact is that what someone knows about you is irrelevant. It is what they do with that knowledge that is important. That may be one reason why robots are considered safer. Robots are not going to go off on their own and misuse what they know about you like a human might.

Now the question is whether the effort lead by Mr. Ickies to bypass the DNC and revive the Democratic Party by using data mining techniques to identify potential contributors and supporters will generate any suspicion.

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