Are government agencies capable of putting in the necessary regulations to protect personal privacy?

A good science fiction story will paint for you a world where science and technology combine to create intriguing and complex systems designed to serve man and make life a pleasurable utopia.

A better science fiction story describes what happens when that all goes wrong.

Has history ever seen a situation where so much technology is required to offset the problems and dangers created by other technologies?

Thankfully, in the nonfiction world, it is apparent that the same personal differences, incompetencies, and inadequacies that keep the creation of that utopia out of our grasp also seem to be the things that prevent anything from going too far wrong.

That said, one still has to wonder. Has history ever seen a situation where so much technology is required to offset the problems and dangers created by other technologies? Well, maybe. But it sure doesn’t seem that way as I sit here going through my daily dose of pharmaceutical ads, mortgage deals, and “money-making opportunities”.

I don’t mean to complain — I couldn’t live without e-mail, despite the annoyances. But there’s a lot more interesting data flying about than just that.

To take up where we left off last month in talking about all the information that was going to be gleaned from users who choose to sign up for Google’s Gmail service: sure there’s a lot of digital data about us all that’s out there for harvesting, but do we really think we have the technology to intelligently sift through it all?

Some people do, there’s no doubt about that. And a lot of them seem to be in the US government.

Let me say first off that I think data mining is a wonderful thing. How else would we know that when men buy nappies on Thursdays and Saturdays, they also tend to buy beer? Or that most loan defaulters complete their applications in pencil?

Well, that’s just not enough for Uncle Sam, apparently. According to CNET‘s Declan McCullagh, despite the fact that Congress managed to pull the plug last year on the Pentagon’s Total Information Awareness data-mining plan, a new government report has revealed that federal agencies have undertaken 199 data-mining efforts. And, “Current federal data-mining efforts, which accelerated dramatically after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist strikes, are taking place with near-zero oversight from Congress or the public.”

It’s happening in other countries too. That just can’t be good — and not just because I’m going to have to dodge stacks of Pampers to get to the beer every Thursday night. There’s just going to have to be tighter controls. And obviously governments aren’t the ones that are going to be able to handle it.

How can I say that? This might be hard to believe, but just as I was writing the above, I received a link to an article describing a near-arrest in the UK. Police “swooped” in to nab a 35-year-old worker over an SMS message he had sent.

According to The Sun, the message read “How about this for Tommy Gun? OK — SO LET’S AGREE ABOUT THE PRICE AND MAKE IT ONE JET AIRLINER AND TEN PRISONERS”. Police released the man when they heard that he was just sending the lyrics of a Clash song to a mate who played in a Clash tribute band.

Of course, the whole incident has launched controversy into how the police ever found out about the message (their story is the message was “actually sent… to a woman in Bristol by mistake and it was she who alerted police to the content”).

Whether we believe that or not, it’s only a matter of time before that kind of surveillance becomes feasible for just about anybody. Will governments be able to regulate the collection and manipulation of private data? I doubt it. And that’s why there has to be a strong lobby from the IT industry to ensure that information is handled properly.

Hang on: I don’t seem to remember those lyrics from the Clash’s Tommy Gun. I hope the police got that guy’s name and address.

This article was first published in Technology & Business magazine.
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