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Thoughts on a PRISM Term

by James B. Rule, a sociologist and a scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law.

"The revelation that the federal government has been secretly gathering records on the phone calls and online activities of millions of Americans and foreigners seems not to have alarmed most Americans... We privacy watchers and civil libertarians think this complacent response misses a deeply worrying political shift of vast consequence...

Institutions and techniques predictably outlive the intentions of their creators. J. Edgar Hoover went before Congress in 1931 to declare that “any employee engaged in wiretapping will be dismissed from the service of the bureau.” A few decades later, F.B.I. agents were in full pursuit of alleged Communist sympathizers, civil rights workers and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — using wiretapping, break-ins and other shady tactics.

We must also ask how far we want government to see into our private lives, even in the prevention and punishment of genuine wrongdoing. The promise that one especially egregious sort of crime (terrorism) can be predicted and stopped can tempt us to apply these capabilities to more familiar sorts of troublesome behavior.

Imagine that analysis of telecommunications data reliably identified failure to report taxable income. Who could object to exploiting this unobtrusive investigative tool, if the payoff were a vast fiscal windfall and the elimination of tax evasion? Or suppose we find telecommunications patterns that indicate the likelihood of child abuse or neglect. What lawmaker could resist demands to “do everything possible” to act on such intelligence — either to apprehend the guilty or forestall the crime.

Using surveillance for predictive modeling to prevent all sorts of undesirable or illegal behavior is the logical next step. These possibilities are by no means a fantastical slippery slope — indeed, the idea of pre-empting criminals before they act was envisioned by Philip K. Dick’s short story “The Minority Report,” later a movie starring Tom Cruise." (more)

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