The current "Able Danger" story is interesting, but I have resisted commenting on it for the same reason I don't comment on reports that bin Laden has been captured--initial reports on sensational subjects may differ greatly from final reports (see also "we found WMD"). But I was reading this comment thread at crookedtimber and one of the comments really struck me--because it reflects a common complaint, and it crystalized for me why the complaint is often wrong.
As I posted over at Drum’s, the thing to think about is this: British counterintelligence was consistently punked throughout the 30s, 40s, and 50s (and some fairly vital nuclear weapon secrets lost in the process) by consistently rejecting suspects/hypotheses because no matter what their preliminary investigations came up with everyone knew that people like Philby couldn’t be double agents. Too well-bred and all that. Except of course some of them were.
So the miners build a statistical analysis model (something I greatly distrust) to find bad guys, and out pops the names of a few Undersecretaries in critical positions. What do they do? Discard those names, of course, because “everyone knows” that “those people” couldn’t be suspects. Right.
And I would be reasonably certain that if we went back and ran various federal agencies’ and investment banks’ securities fraud models against the WorldCom data from 1995-2000 that Ebbers’ name would pop out as needing further investigation. For all we know it did at the time. Do you think anyone investigated as a result? As another commentor at Drum’s said, only pee-ons are targets for data mining.
I have lots of libertarian-type concerns about governmental data-mining. But the concern that some of the rich and powerful might get around it doesn't really bother me. I'm not rich or powerful, and I don't really have a hope of being such. But I take it as a given that the rich and powerful get around things all the time. If it happens with too much frequency it should be minimized whenever possible, but the fact that it happens at all is not a particularly good critique of the system as a whole. The fact that Kennedy wasn't charged with manslaughter for his youthful indiscretion at 37 in Chappaquiddick doesn't mean that prosecutorial discretion is necessarily a bad thing. The fact that OJ got off for murder doesn't mean the jury system is all bad (it didn't shake my faith too much, though other cases since have made me want to rethink the jury system but I can't come up with something that is obviously better). The liberal equivalent would be--the fact that some people game the welfare system doesn't mean the whole thing is bad if it is well balanced otherwise. In short the fact that systems can be gamed to some extent is an expected fact in the real world. Of course we should try to minimize that fact, but that isn't a good critique of a system that does well for most people most of the time. So the question for data-mining shouldn't be "Will anyone ever be able to escape its net?" but rather "Is it useful enough for what we have to give up?" It isn't clear to me what the answer is, but I'm certain that asking the right question is a good first step.