Here comes the five-oh

2010 March 16
by Dave

As we pursue increasingly more of our social interactions through connected digital media, at what point does government attention cross the line from being a police cruiser rolling through your neighborhood to make sure every thing looks okay to being a local police department tapping the phone lines of people that live in a bad part of town just to see if any one is up to no good.

To quote commenter MaverEcon on Lexington’s blog:

A criminal committing a crime and then later bragging about it to a non-uniformed police officer sitting next to him in a bar is equivalent to a criminal Facebook friending a stranger and giving that “friend” access to all the information.

Right now a good rule of thumb is to never post anything anywhere on Facebook that you wouldn’t want on the front page of your local newspaper. That is a fine rule except that the sheer thoroughness of the data available to a proficient online stalker with a badge has reached a point that is troublesome.

I think that a new data mining warrant should be created. The mechanic would be pretty simple. Law enforcement would get court authorization covering data collection of all forms on a person of interest. Trying to parse out how interesting an individual is and thus how greatly their privacy should be violated would be too opaque and open to abuse.

It will be helpful to law enforcement to have a clear delineation between acceptable research and aggressive research as our online identities become more complex and authentic. Ideally there would be automated basic background check functionality available without oversight that would aggregate publicly available information and correlate with databases of known nefarious people and activities. Anything beyond that which investigators can’t find a tough on crime judge to authorize probably isn’t a good idea in the first place.

This would require a line to be drawn that clearly delineates public identity from private identity. I’m not terribly interested in the exact location of this boundary, just in its existence. These boundaries used to be obvious. My house is private. My home phone conversations are private. My conversations on the bus, even with friends, are not private.

A phone call is an abstraction of a face to face conversation that has been provided legal equivalence to speaking with someone in your own home. As our communication increasingly takes place in metaphorical spaces that are even further abstracted from the real world, it is important that decisions be made on which metaphors have legal standing.

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