The Right Coast

January 04, 2006
Data storage and 4th amendment
By Tom Smith

Jack Balkin has a very good point here.

To add to it a little bit, technology on the data mining front is moving very fast. In fact, the term data mining is too narrow and somewhat dated. For just a taste of one cutting edge approach, check this out. This company takes a semantic network approach to unstructured databases. There are other approaches as well.

What I am getting at is, if the government puts together a huge database -- and Jack is absolutely correct; it is within their capabilities, well within -- then with tech from the private sector, not to mention what NSA geniuses come up with, then what they can figure out about individuals, firms, and so on, really does not have any clear limit. It is not at all far fetched to say if the government wanted to, it could know more about people than they know about themselves, a lot more.

There are many questions here. The first is whether the storage of this information violates constitutional protections. I think sensience may make some difference here. If every email you have sent in the last five years is stored in some place the government has access to, but they do not actually access it, then I'm not sure your privacy has been affected at all.

But here is something that worries me, though maybe it shouldn't. Search algorithms are already astonishingly powerful. They are advancing rapidly. It may be possible soon to pull out from such things as patterns of emails, phone calls, puchases and the like, people likely to be involved in drug trafficing, money laundering, whatever. If an impartial algorithm can troll through a database and produce a list of people who really are, to some high degree of probability, connected with herion trafficking say, should that be enough to support a warrant to start the really intrusive, traditional sort of surveillance?

I have already made clear that I think the President should be able to do exactly this if it is necessary to fight a war. But law enforcement agencies doing it does strike me as pretty creepy. It could be an extremely powerful law enforcement tool, though.