I usually avoid political topics, but I think this is so interesting that I will diverge from my usual practice. In my Predictive Analytics strategy class last week, I wrote about some of the controversies in the use of data.
I think the area of pre-crime is also an area that will have limits. Because government has overwhelming resources, we limit the use of those resources not to protect the guilty but to protect the innocent (e.g., we don’t want the police kicking in just anyone’s door for fun). Hence, I have doubts that the police will ever be granted the rights to use surveillance of people who an analytics program suspects will commit a crime in the abstract. (Investigation of suspects of a crime that has been committed is an entirely different matter.)
On the subject of criminal justice, I think there are areas that may be a little more gray. For example, we will soon have the capability with growing camera counts and facial recognition (and car tag recognition, and then probably RFID car tags) to track all people at all times. Some places already are developing such technologies. While pre-crime may be off-limits, I’m not sure that city monitoring will be, though it is a little Orwellian to think that the government might know where you are most of the time. I think many people would agree to such surveillance in exchange for security. Analytics will likely bring that question to the public. What do you think?
I think another interesting gray area is where private businesses wield power on the scale of governments. This is a situation that the world has never faced until recently due to the fact that private institutions now produce and hold more data than the government. Facebook is getting close to a billion users. The credit agencies like Experian have detailed financial transaction data on nearly all Americans. Yet the protection we afford citizens against the government does not apply to private entities. Hence we have increasing discussion about “privacy” in the use of data.
This week we got a partial answer to some of those questions, and it appears that my initial thoughts were simply wrong. President Obama gave a speech about what the NSA will and will not do to earn the trust of the American people. See: NYTimes Article In Keeping Grip on Data Pipeline, Obama Does Little to Reassure Industry
Specifically, companies like Google, Apple, and Intel had complained to the government that their spying on their portions of the Internet drives international business away from them. That seems like a reasonable point. Obama responded, and frankly I am not one to improve on the NYTimes writing:
In fact, he did more than that: Mr. Obama reminded the country that it was not only the government that was monitoring users of the web, it was also companies like Apple, Facebook, Twitter and Yahoo that had complained so loudly, as members of an industry group called Reform Government Surveillance.
“Corporations of all shapes and sizes track what you buy, store and analyze our data, and use it for commercial purposes,” the president said. “That’s how those targeted ads pop up on your computer and your smartphone periodically.”
Translation: Corporate America wants to be able to mine Americans’ data, but fears business will be hurt when the government uses it for intelligence purposes.
For me, the take-away is that I was wrong in my position last week. Traditionally, the Consitution places restrictions on the government’s activities. Hence the reason for my pointing out the question about what does it mean when businesses wield the power of governments (not a question that has been missed by any small country in dealing with large multinational corporations).
If companies engage in what is tantamount to spying on the American people through the use of analytics, then the Government is allowed to do the same. THAT’S AMAZINGLY HONEST. I will give the President points on transparency.
On some level, the President’s answer appears to defy the Constitution. I was suggesting that maybe limits should apply to the companies, not that corporate actions thereby relieve the US government from any responsibility. I agree that we have national security interests at stake, and I’m not saying that the government should not have the ability to protect the nation. That’s the sort of balancing that the government has always done, and, sometimes it hasn’t gotten it always right. (Think about the internment of the citizens in WWII on the basis of race.) But it appears instead that the players have left the field.
What we have is a Hobbesian Internet.