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Privacy and the “Terrorist Surveillance Act”

President Bush says that he wants the lame duck Congress to pass the Terrorist Surveillance Act (President Bush Meets with Cabinet Rose Garden, November 9, 2006).

What does this have to do with government information? If we continue with the current trend of government information being available only on the web from government-controlled web servers, we enhance and simplify the ability of the government to monitor and examine the government information we read. The “Terrorist Surveillance Act” will make this worse because it will effectively change the minimalist privacy policies the government has (see Will GPO guarantee user privacy? Can it?) into surveillance policies.

The “Terrorist Surveillance Act” is misnamed. It doesn’t authorize the government to spy on terrorists, it authorizes the government to spy on everyone hoping that it can find terrorists.

Why is that bad? Surely, it shouldn’t be bad “if I have nothing to hide” right? As Guy Kewney explains, mining data for patterns yields matches for people who are not terrorists. It enables the government to find innocent people and worse it enables the government to find…

…[n]ot terrorists, just enemies. Hostile journalists, campaigning lobbyists, critical journalists, businessmen who are likely to sponsor rival parties, people who oppose the party leader’s favourite idea of the year.

Kewney’s comment uses examples from the UK, but it is relevant to citizens of any government that is trying to use data mining of legitimate information seeking behavior to try to identify terrorists. Such surveillance has more of a chilling effect on regular citizens than it does on actual terrorists.

The “Terrorist Surveillance Act” is a misleading name for a bad idea. I believe it is just the sort of misguided, bad policy that voters rejected in our recent election.

Now we can do two things: We can tell our representatives that we don’t want this legislation now, or in January, or ever. And, we can insist that GPO and government agencies deposit copies of government information with FDLP libraries, ensuring that citizens have access to government information from libraries that respect privacy and honor the “right to read” which depends or our right to privacy.

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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