Thursday, December 22, 2005

Posner on surveillance of US citizens

Judge Richard Posner has weighed into the debate about the surveillance of US citizens with an opinion piece in the Washington Post.

"The collection, mainly through electronic means, of vast amounts of personal data is said to invade privacy. But machine collection and processing of data cannot, as such, invade privacy. Because of their volume, the data are first sifted by computers, which search for names, addresses, phone numbers, etc., that may have intelligence value. This initial sifting, far from invading privacy (a computer is not a sentient being), keeps most private data from being read by any intelligence officer.

The data that make the cut are those that contain clues to possible threats to national security. The only valid ground for forbidding human inspection of such data is fear that they might be used to blackmail or otherwise intimidate the administration's political enemies."

Judge Posner is a man of outstanding intellect and someone I have the highest regard for but he is making a very big assumption here i.e. that the system is so good that the data that get filtered through for human inspection are those that contain clues to possible threats to national security. We know that software filters are terrible.

To the degree that he goes on to argue that the US might need a domestic spy agency like MI5, he may well have a point but it is disappointing to see the judge subscribing to the myth of the magic computer system.

That's the thing about what I'm calling "digital decision making" in my book - when making decisions about regulation and deployment of technology, even smart people make huge, unsustainable jumps in faith in the ability of that technology [which they don't understand] to deliver the solution to complex and often vaguely specified problems (which are more appropriately described as messes), like terrorism. Of course it's more common to say that it can "form part of the solution" but neither stance is defensible. Computers only do what they are programmed to do. If you program garbage in, you'll get garbage out. Justifying the collection of vasts amounts of personal data on everyone, on the basis that a computer system will magically sift that data and spit out clues that will lead to the bad guys, doesn't wash, at least with the technology at its current stage of development.

I'm not sure the kind of clue generating system that Judge Posner seems to assume is currently in operation will ever come about but if it does, that's when you can start getting into a substantive debate regarding the specific point in the data processing that personal privacy might be breached. As always with complex technology, though, the devil will be in the details.

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