CHARLIE MITCHELL: Absent informed consent, our data is our business

By Charlie Mitchell

In old prison break movies, the guards waggle an escapee’s shirt or socks in front a pack of baying bloodhounds. The dogs get the scent and go to work.
Today, we leave another roadmap. We have little choice about that. And our data trails are just as telling.
With our consent, express or implied, digital information, properly gathered and “crunched,” results in amazingly detailed portraits of our preferences and habits.
For example, based on my frequent-shopper card, the store’s computer can predict when I will buy another half-gallon of milk. The computer knows the brand, everything. That’s just the tip of the data-mining iceberg. Using mathematical models and paired with other data, computers could tell you the color of my sofa and when I might shop for a new one.
Is this bad? Is this insidious?
No. It’s commerce. No harm done. And further, I choose to participate – even if not fully aware of the detailed portrait my data will paint.
We now know that our government is gathering mass data on Americans. The situation is entirely different, and not just because we didn’t consent. Too, there is no comfort to be taken in President Barack Obama’s assurance that eavesdroppers are not listening to our conversations, just monitoring cell phone and email “traffic loads” to detect “suspicious activity.”
What makes government snooping different?
Individuals have a constitutional guarantee that government will not “data-mine” us. The guarantee was written well over 200 years ago, but hasn’t changed and is just as important as ever. The Fourth Amendment says government will leave us alone unless it determines there’s cause to believe we shouldn’t be left alone.
A Meridian case from almost 50 years ago illustrates the point. A crime had occurred, so police went out, rounded up everybody who fit a very general description and fingerprinted each one. In sum, each person “data-mined” was a suspect until the Meridian police decided he wasn’t.
The Supreme Court said in very clear language that’s not how America works. The Fourth Amendment doesn’t allow fingerprinting the masses. Likewise, it doesn’t allow government to gather information (data from our digits or our digital data) on all of us on the assumption that some of us might be guilty of something.
In recent days, government folks have expressed shock and alarm over the news coverage of the covert amassing of personal information. It will tip off terrorists, they said. Well, that rings pretty hollow. Certainly, any would-be bomber is well-aware of electronic espionage and already goes to great ends to avoid being picked up on the National Security Agency radar.
That’s another reason why people should avoid the temptation to think of this as no big deal, a mere extension of the “invasions” already conducted by grocery stores, phone companies or Internet entities such as Facebook or Twitter.
Imagine this: One day a battery-powered gadget arrives in your mailbox (the one out by the street) and with it are orders from the government: “You must keep this tracking device charged and with you at all times. To keep you safe, we must know where you are at all times.”
The cellphone you now carry voluntarily is, of course, that gadget. When it’s on a signal saying, “Here I am” is transmitted nonstop. You know this because you get a bill every month that lists every call or message made or received.
“Hey, it’s not hurting anything,” for the government to have this information, too, has been the attitude of many. Many of the young men fingerprinted in Meridian might have thought the same: “Hey, I didn’t do it, and this will prove it.”
But those white-wigged old men who huddled in Philadelphia knew one thing for certain: Government could not avoid becoming abusive if the people were not allowed to know what was going on. They laid down the law: When government wants to search or seize our personal property – and our data is our personal property – it has to have a reason, not come up with a reason after the fact.
It is true, as the president says, that people should expect some changes as the government tries to thwart terrorists. It’s also true that those who came up with this super-snooping methodology meant well and that some bad men – like the culprit in Meridian – might be caught.
But at what cost? Government is already too invasive, too powerful. Too many personal freedoms have already been handed over.
CHARLIE MITCHELL is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or email cmitchell43@yahoo.com.