Can The Govenment Control Big Data and Safeguard Privacy: I Don’t Think So!

Dear Commons Community,

Leonard H. Schrank, the chief executive of Swift (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication) from 1992 to 2007, and Juan C. Zarate, a former assistant Treasury secretary, have an op-ed piece in today’s New York Times, promoting “big data” surveillance as long as there are controls in place to prevent misuse.  They frame the issue well:

“In the wake of revelations about the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs, President Obama has acknowledged the imperative to balance privacy and security. But so far, his administration’s defense of the programs has failed to assure the public that this balance has been achieved — or that basic privacy rights and civil liberties are being protected.

Now that these programs have been leaked, Americans need to decide what this balance should look like. How do we devise a program that can allow the intelligence community to use big data and the latest technology to prevent terrorist attacks while ensuring we have not created a Big Brother state? In other words, how can we trust but verify?”

Their solution is to use something akin to the classified Terrorist Finance Tracking Program (T.F.T.P.), which was developed and overseen by the United States Treasury. T.F.T.P. was, and still is, run by the Treasury Department using information subpoenaed from the Society for Worldwide International Financial Telecommunication. Swift is an industry-owned, global-financial-messaging system based in Brussels. Its transmissions carry financial messages for most of the world’s banks across borders. Swift’s data show who is transferring money, how much, and to whom, and contains specific identifier information. Soon after 9/11, Treasury began to subpoena Swift’s data to allow government analysts to track the movement of terrorist funds.

The Swift system doesn’t contain private bank account information. But if a terrorist financier in one country were sending funds to a terrorist in another, it would be in the data of subpoenaed Swift messages.  The sender’s and receiver’s names and bank account information would also be in the message. From the start, privacy and civil liberties protections were central to the program. Unlike the N.S.A., we assumed it would eventually have to endure public scrutiny — in America and abroad.

Their conclusion:

“To give American citizens confidence that their privacy isn’t being violated today, the government must demonstrate that there is adequate oversight of the programs and that constraints on the use of N.S.A. data are being respected vigilantly. The private companies that are affected should be briefed on how their data is being used and given some say in how the programs are structured, limited and defended in public. It’s possible that the government is already doing some of this — but the people must be told.”

As well intentioned and well-stated are Shrank and Zarate in their position, I cannot agree that the federal government can be trusted with  large amounts of data on its citizens.  Politics in the United States has taken a most nasty turn  at all levels.   The mean-spiritedness of some of our government officials exemplified by the vitriol of their dialogue is indicative of individuals who put ideological goals ahead of the common good.   Big data sooner or later will be used to subvert individual freedoms.


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