Friday, December 23, 2005

spying on Americans

OK, let's discuss the two many issues here:
  1. The legality/Constitutionality of the Bush NSA surveillance program
  2. The mendacity of the Bush administration's defense
  3. The effectiveness of data mining surveillance
  4. The wisdom of this approach to law enforcement.
The warrantless wiretapping approach is obviously illegal and unconstitutional. What remains in question is how important that is to people. The illegality can be seen simply by referring to President Bush's on speeches on the subject.

The legal defense put forward has been inconsistent and absurd. Others have commented upon this in depth, so I don't feel the need to.

Point 3 is the only thing that the administration has going for it. But here's the problem, and where Point 4 is important: this attitude misreads what the purpose of the police is. The police's purpose in life is not to constantly hold everybody in suspicion. This is why the Constitution protects Americans against "unreasonable search and seizure". If the police were given the power to search private residences at their own whim, there would likely be an increase in the arrest and conviction rate. But what is the cost?

From a statistical standpoint, the phenomenon can be viewed in the prism of false positive and false negative rates. Increasing police powers will (allegedly, at least) reduce the false negative rate; i.e., reduce the crime rate (and/or rate of terrorist attacks). But they also increase the false positive rate.

This is where the debate about torture becomes relevant. Torture has the potential to push the false positive rate up significantly. The problem in this instance is that the police, once they have taken a person's liberty away, have the incentive to maintain that denial of liberty. If it becomes apparent that an innocent person has been seized, or spied upon, the reaction of the police is generally to be insensitive and uncaring about the plight of the person whose rights have been violated.

I can understand that the police want more power, but I tend to think that the police will always want more power. I'm not convinced that giving the police more power is the answer to the problems that society faces.