Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Government wants to mine your data, for your own good of course

If I remember my Nietzsche correctly, which I might not, one paraphrase of an aphorism runs “’for your own good’ is an expression of the will to power”.

That’s apposite in the flood of “for your good” stories that surround the world of so-called “big data”. Including this one: http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/political-news/data-is-not-a-dirty-word-20121213-2bc9j.html#ixzz2FOP2LQUI  from Peter Martin, writing for Fairfax.

There’s a good reason that Peter Martin is no Ross Gittins: Martin is so easily blinded by the light, as he has been in this profile piece. In the name of “your own good”, Kim Carr – whose ministerial duties have been whittled down (presumably because nobody wants anyone like him to be the smartest person in the room), has discovered A Cause: Big Data in the Service of Citizens.

For a start, I’m wary of powerful people with catch-phrasey causes. I do sling personal money at causes from time to time, even if people who know me may consider the Rural Fire Service and SES to be merely self-interest. But when someone with a position of power gets fired up, I worry, because they downplay downsides.

Identifying the downsides is one of the handful of roles that journalists can still rightly claim: “Here’s someone with A Plan: what’s wrong with it?” is one of the most legitimate questions any journalist can ask.

Peter Martin fails.

The gist of the Fairfax story is that Big Data will let governments do a better job of identifying those who need help, before they ask for it.

I can’t argue with the idea that people need help. Without the Australian health system, my wife would now be dead AND I would be bankrupt. An American friend of mine, watching our progress through a serious, severe and chronic immune-system disorder that needs ongoing chemo and has required three surgeons this year (one involving replacing about 40 cm of artery), tells me we long ago passed the million-dollar-patient mark, were we in America.

But mining their interactions with government?

A thousand times no.

Prove to me that Senator Carr has only the purest motives; prove to me that no Australian government in my lifetime could ever have motives other than Senator Carr’s; demonstrate that his ideas will save lives or families; I will still say no.

It’s not only the Philip K Dick “pre-crime” associations that the idea brings. It’s a simple matter of corruption.

There is no way on earth that the Senator, the government, or all the functionaries employed to protect the data, can guarantee it against misuse. Anybody needs only to see the information on a screen, and they have a lever to use against an individual.

Some of them will.

And there’s no way to guarantee that the future of Commonwealth data mining will be benign – because agencies like the Tax Office are helplessly in love with Number 5’s statement: “More data! I need more data!”

And it’s always with the excuse “for your own good” – as it is in the Peter Martin article.

Nietzsche was mad, possibly syphilitic, and certainly contributed to a world view that is odious in the modern world. He was crap as a physician of the psyche, but very good as a diagnostician.

“For your own good” is merely a way to exercise power. It's the price, to descend into the scatological, for which your arse is sold. Ask yourself: is the lube worth the pain?

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