Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Data-mining governments - an annoyance, but not a real danger to democracy

I had to re-read Tom McGurk's column from this week's Sunday Business Post. I think this was because the headline – Legacy of September 11 corrodes all our lives – had me expecting something completely different than what he wrote.

McGurk's column is about all the personal data that our digital world has created and how it's stored and mined by various (nasty?) government agencies. He also notes that companies are storing a lot of information about each of us. McGurk claims - he could well be right, I have no idea - that these companies "want to exchange their information for the state’s information."

McGurk's thesis is that the government is gathering all that information in the name of security as a result of what happened on September 11, 2001. McGurk says, "the most disturbing legacy of that day, for all of us, is not on a global, macro scale, but on an individual, micro scale."

I guess my problem with what McGurk is saying is that he pins all of this on September 11. I just don't accept this. The vast amounts of information clearly would have come about if September 11 had never happened, but so would the state's impulse to warehouse and mine as much data as they could.

Maybe the voters in America would have been less willing to go along with this if not for September 11, but I suspect it would have happened anyway. Besides, if McGurk's thesis is true, this urge to accumulate information is not just American, but exists across "the west."

I think concerns about the amount of data that governments and companies have about us a legitimate concern, but it doesn't keep me awake nights. A government's first priority is to protect the citizens and for now many in the west are making a willing compromise - allowing the government to save and use all sorts of information on us in exchange for what we hope are better informed security forces.

Unlike the scare mongers who see conspiracies everywhere, I believe this can be changed if the public demands it. Maybe someday it will or maybe we'll all just learn to live with the knowledge that the government knows how many MB of data we download daily.