Of Wiretaps, Google Searches and Handguns


Feb. 5, 2006 — -- Civil libertarians and many others have been rightfully concerned about government policies that would curtail free speech and privacy rights in the name of catching terrorists and limiting children's access to pornography.

As I note below, mathematical issues are involved as well. First note though that it's not being soft on terrorism to object strenuously to the National Security Agency's intercepting phone calls and e-mails without obtaining FISA court warrants. This is especially so when the warrant can be obtained up to 72 hours after the interception. Such objections are all the more justified if the NSA is monitoring and attempting to sift through all (or a substantial part of) such electronic traffic, an ominous undertaking that might explain the administration's not going the legal route.

In any case, the Fourth Amendment is being violated with arrogance and seeming impunity. For the record, it states: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized." I'm familiar with many definitions of "probable," but there's no meaning of the term I know that can be used to justify large-scale warrantless searches.

And it's not being soft on young children's access to pornography to object strenuously to the government's attempted commandeering of Google's search records to determine what everyone already knows: that pornography is popular and easy to find (if you set out to look for it). Again, "probable" is ignored when the wholesale data mining of the searches of millions of people is casually requested even if, as in this case, personal privacy would not be compromised.

Defenders of these governmental intrusions generally point to the threat that terrorists' access to international telecommunications channels and children's access to pornography pose. There is a trade-off, they intone, between liberty and security.

This is, of course, true in a general sense, but what I find interesting is that so many of the defenders of these policies would never make similar arguments in other contexts, say about the need to limit unfettered access to handguns.

The second amendment stipulating that the "the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed" is interpreted so literally that it has led, in part, to almost 400 of my fellow Philadelphians (and nearly 12,000 people nationally) being killed last year by guns -- not by terrorists, not by porn addicts, but by hot-headed people with guns. Some have even argued we all have a right to own machine guns.

Why are these unrelenting deaths by handguns not considered a matter of national security requiring a minuscule loss of liberty in the form of stricter gun laws? And why, to cite another example, is limiting environmental extravagance not considered a matter of national security requiring a minuscule loss of liberty in the form of more energy-efficient vehicles?

Loss of liberty and privacy, if legally sanctioned and absolutely necessary (and this is a huge and unfulfilled "if"), should at least result in some good. A serious problem with massive, untargeted and illegal wiretaps (and perhaps with future government-mandated Google searches or even informal Amazon ones -- link: http://www.applefritter.com/bannedbooks), however, is that they'd likely be ineffective. The volume of the information generated by them would make it essentially impossible to follow up on the "leads" generated. There isn't the manpower to investigate more than a tiny fraction of them in real time.

Yet another problem is the perennial problem of false positives (about which I wrote here when the Total Information Awareness program was being considered). Even if an accurate profile of potential terrorists is drawn, the fact that such a vanishingly small percentage of us are terrorists means that the vast majority of the people investigated will be innocent.

Even if the probability that the purported terrorist profile is accurate were an astonishing 99 percent (if someone has terrorist ties, the profile will pick him or her out 99 percent of the time, and, for ease of computation, if someone does not have such ties, the profile will pick him or her out only 1 percent of the time), most of the hits would be false positives.

For illustration, let's further assume that one out of a million American residents has terrorist ties -- that's approximately 300 people -- and the profile will pick out 99 percent, or 297 of them. Great. But what of the approximately 300 million innocent Americans? The profile will also pick out 1 percent of them, "only" 3 million false positives, innocent people who will be caught up in a Kafkaesque dragnet.

It should be reiterated that such broad scale wiretapping and data mining is not only of questionable legality if not downright unconstitutional, but it is also ineffective and a waste of resources. Terrorism is a problem, but so are handguns, health care, the deficit, the environment, education, and a host of other issues that are more important to our personal and, I think, our national security.

There are legal means to fight terrorists and limit children's (but not adults') access to porn that don't require that we sacrifice our constitutional freedoms and privacy rights. If I may make another local reference, recall that Philadelphian Benjamin Franklin, whose 300th birthday celebration just passed, famously wrote: "Those who would sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither." What they might deserve is the surveillance state toward which we seem to be heading.

Professor of mathematics at Temple University, John Allen Paulos is the author of best-selling books including "Innumeracy" and "A Mathematician Plays the Stock Market." His "Who's Counting?" column on ABCNews.com appears the first weekend of every month.

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