Privacy Backlash

Jane Black’s Privacy Matters column in BusinessWeek this week takes a look at the privacy backlash against the MATRIX statewide database and similar programs:

BIRTH OF BIG BROTHER. There’s no doubt that MATRIX raises privacy red flags, though after an extensive briefing by the Florida Law Enforcement Dept., which is spearheading the project, I believe that it’s little more than an efficient way to query multiple databases.

The real furor over MATRIX demonstrates something much more important — and surprising: Privacy advocates have gained a lot of ground in the two years since September 11. And the pendulum is swinging back in their favor.

“The MATRIX is not whirring away at night to create a list of suspects that is placed on my desk every morning,” says Zadra [chief of investigation at the Florida Law Enforcement]. “All it does is dynamically combine commercially available public data with state-owned data [such as driver’s license information, sexual-predator records, and Corrections Dept. information] when queried. I can’t imagine any citizen getting angry that we’re using the best tools available to efficiently and effectively solve crimes.”

Nobody has a problem with law enforcement using the best tools to solve crimes. Everybody has a problem with law enforcement using those tools to harass innocent citizens and suppress free expression of speech. It’s because of this potential for abuse that we have things like the Fourth Amendment and laws preventing the CIA from spying on US citizens. The trouble with all these combined public/commercial database plans like MATRIX, CAPPS-2 and TIA is that commercial databases have no such protections — companies can and will do just about anything to gather information about us, and it’s all perfectly legal. Why should I care whether it’s the CIA or Master Card that is telling the government what breakfast cereal I eat?