Data Selection

…is much more important than blanket data collection…

“Obsta principiis, nip the shoots of arbitrary power in the bud, is the only maxim which can ever preserve the liberties of any people. When the people give way, their deceivers, betrayers, and destroyers press upon them so fast, that there is no resisting afterwards. The nature of the encroachment upon the American constitution is such, as to grow every day more and more encroaching. Like a cancer, it eats faster and faster every hour.”

~ John Adams, Novanglus Papers, No. 3, February 1775

Just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should. Just because something has potential benefits, that doesn’t mean doing it necessarily outweighs the potential harm. A great kerfuffle has arisen from the revelations about the United States’ massive data collection efforts, aimed at, well, pretty much everyone. Even setting aside the nature and source of these revelations, we’re left with the troubling task of what to do about them. After all, our nation has basically been forced to admit that rather than being the champion of liberty and bulwark of privacy it ought to be, it’s just been getting into everyone’s data for the sake of getting into everyone’s data. Apparently some portions of the American intelligence community have adopted the “more is better” approach. Therefore, they’ve decided that sorting through massive amounts of data à la the vaunted “needle-in-a-haystack” method makes finding the one wolf hiding among the sheep that much easier. And in doing so, the federal government has taken it upon itself to toss the baby of privacy out with the bathwater of liberty. (Yes, Dear Readers, I may have just used up my quota of metaphors for the day). It’s not really surprising that the government has been reluctant to see the real problem that everyone else has with this. To paraphrase a much brighter man than me (that would also be John Adams), power always believes itself to be right. And while I am in fact keen to be safeguarded from terrorism and other violence in society, I’m not entirely sure I am in fact “safe” when my government takes it upon itself to collect my data without checking with me first. (Not to mention, it certainly gives the tin-foil conspiracy theorists their first big “win” in like a century).

The entire point of our Constitution is to keep our government from giving itself the kinds of arbitrary powers that can and will eventually destroy liberty and American democracy (and yes, universal data collection would be one of those arbitrary powers that’s generally just plain bad). We don’t really have to even guess at what the Founding Fathers would think about gaining a little safety but giving up that much authority to our government…they would be indignant at the very thought. These are people that started a revolution because their government randomly decided to jerk them around a few times too many without bothering to take their rights and opinions into account first. Even if the entire nation were under siege by a large, powerful, legitimate threat, the Founding Fathers would still NEVER have been alright with the idea of legitimizing a large, powerful intelligence service collecting massive amounts of data on everyone. If that makes everyone a little less safe, it’s a pretty small price to pay to be a lot more free.


Res Publica


Documentation without Representation:

John Adams, Novanglus Papers, No. 3, February 1775 (emphasis added)

Electronic Text Courtesy of the Online Library of Liberty

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