Barbara Shelly

Through the Prism: Let government make its case for data mining

The New York Times has unleashed a blistering


regarding the federal government’s data collection program, as portrayed in news reports over the last couple of days, calling the dragnet of phone and Internet records “an abuse of power that demands a real explanation.”

The Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, is out with an


headlined “Thank you for data-mining,” and calls the government’s acquisition of “meta data” “a core part of the war on terror.”

Personally, I’m finding it hard to come down firmly on one side or another. There is something creepy about the idea that the government has access to what phone numbers I dial or text, and to the addresses to which I send emails. But what we’re actually talking about, as The Journal editorial explains, is vast fields of numbers and data over which the National Security Administration runs algorithms, searching for odd patterns or suspicious activity. Put that way, it’s rather impersonal.

I think we have to get used to the idea that few of our conversations beyond the face-to-face sort are private. The phone and Internet companies already had all of the information that the government was sweeping up in the highly classified Prism program, and then some. Amazon, Google and Facebook already know more about my interests, friends and associates than I am comfortable with.

But why the secrecy? If the government thinks meta-data collection is essential to national security, as the White House and members of both parties in Congress are saying, let them make their case to the public. The rationale that secrecy is needed to fool the terrorists is lame. One can be sure the terrorists are aware the national security apparatus is looking for them.

The most troubling aspect of the government data dragnet is the potential for abuse. Searching for patterns that might reveal terror networks is one thing; most Americans understand and appreciate that the government has a responsibility to protect citizens. But access to massive databases also seems to present the opportunity for spying on political opponents, minority groups and activists. Illegal targeting of individuals and groups has happened before in our history and Americans are right to be wary of it.

Should the Prism program be shut down? I’m not in that camp at the moment. But we need to know a lot more about what it is and how it is used.