The Conversation

Magnitude and margin of error in privacy concerns

In response to Violations:

I think the magnitude of these NSA programs is one of the things that makes people nervous about them, Greg.  A 1% margin of error is more significant when you're talking about 100 million intercepts and meta-data harvests.

The cops involved in stop-and-frisk have been insisting all along that their behavior is not indiscriminate or racist.  "Stop and frisk is never about race, it's about behavior," one NYPD officer told the New York Daily News.  "If we were investigating kids on bikes that were snatching hardworking residents’ purses as they made their way home, then we would stop and question kids we found rolling around on bikes."

In contrast, the really eyebrow-raising NSA programs are wildly indiscriminate, Hoovering up data on everyone, not just people the intelligence services have good reason to suspect of threatening activity.  Imagine every single person in New York getting stopped and frisked, or quietly followed around by surveillance drones.  Maybe they'd just harvest "metadata" on everyone by logging every time you entered or exited a building or vehicle.

I've always been a tough-on-crime guy myself, including counter-terrorism.  But it can go too far.  The safeguards are dubious, and we keep hearing stories that makes oversight sound shaky.  I'll admit that I particularly distrust this Administration with mountains of data about law-abiding citizens, but I'm not sure how much I would trust any of them to the extent of what we keep hearing about.  I can agree to many measures with proper oversight, legal warrant, or even solid probable cause that make me nervous in the absence of those measures.  

To be honest, if I found out the government was spying on me because they had solid intel suggesting I was a threat, I'd obviously be rattled, and worried about what made them think so... but I'd understand.  Likewise, if I was behaving in a way that made the police think I needed a dose of stop and frisk, as long as they were polite about it, I wouldn't be outraged.  I actually was profiled long ago, because I resembled someone who was pulling a string of break-ins in my area.  I was surprised out of nowhere by an unmarked police car, and asked some questions by a deputy.  It was unnerving, especially for a 19-year-old, but I understood and approved of the effort to catch the real perpetrator.  

But this broad-based metadata jamboree, with gigabytes of data accidentally sucked into the NSA's digital Dustbuster because they typed the area code for Egypt wrong?  I'm skeptical.  And the skeptics have been sounding more sensible than the programs' apologists these days.


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