Computer Matching Versus Privacy
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With the advent of new computer technologies, the ease with which new information can be discovered from aggregating data sources is astounding. This technique is called computer matching. When it comes to doing research this can be an incredible source of new ideas and correlations between sets of data. However, this same technique can be applied to information about individual people. Suddenly, by pulling together disparate sources of data, private information can be learned about an individual without their knowledge or consent. If the organization that is capable of computer matching is a government, it places a lot of information in the hands of a powerful entity. A question of whether the government should have this new information is a significant one.
What if the government were not allowed to ask you for information that is discoverable through computer matching? Should the government be allowed to use this technique to yield the same information? This ethical dilemma is covered in this paper. Relevant information will be used from the laws in the United States and the European Union to illustrate the different perspectives on the privacy of citizens and the approaches each government takes to it.
Letter of the Law or Spirit?
Many countries around the world have laws on what information a government can ask from its citizens. These laws typically focus on protecting the privacy of individual citizens and preventing discrimination based upon the collected information. Computer matching could place this same information in the hands of the government.
In the United States, US law prohibits the direct collection of certain information. This includes, but not limited to information about ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc1. The European Union (EU) has set guidelines for members of the union. These guidelines set strict rules for the “processing” of personal information. The EU defines processing as collection, use, storage, retrieval, transmission, destruction, and other actions2. The rules also provide provisions requiring the consent of the individual person before this “processing” can occur.
It is apparent that the intentions of the laws for the United States and the EU are to protect the privacy of their citizens. However, loopholes exist in these laws that allow the governments to bend these laws. In the United States, the law prevents the government from asking for certain information, but it does not prevent it from purchasing this information or using matching techniques to discover it.
Strict as the EU guidelines are, the individual countries are allowed to define what is in the “public’s interest”. Each country can define this as loosely or strictly as it pleases. This can result in little or no privacy protection for citizens.
Some would argue if the law does not specifically deny the government from doing something it is fair game. This is the so-called letter of the law. This can occur as an oversight on the part of the law writers, or as technology advances new frontiers may not even be covered by the law. But is this the true spirit in which the law was written? If the answer is yes, then the governments are acting ethically. I would argue that, this is not the spirit of the law. If the laws enacted were written to protect the privacy of the individual, then that is the intent of the laws. Therefore, even if new technology is not covered by the laws, the intent of the laws should govern the behavior of governments.
Equality through disclosure or privacy?
One may question whether governments even need privacy laws. If viewed from the discrimination perspective, many argue both sides. The biggest point of contention is if race, sexual orientation, etc does not matter, then having laws around these attributes only highlight the differences and keep them visible to everyone. The theory goes, if everyone is equal then no special treatment is needed and we do not need laws to hide this information. Even if the government knew any of this information it would not treat them any differently and therefore the government can safely have this information.
This argument assumes that we live in an ideal world. In this world, everyone believes that people are equal. No one distrusts or hates someone because of their beliefs or background. Differences in people can be openly discussed without fear of retribution. And finally, no one would use information to threaten, embarrass someone or otherwise take advantage of the information.
Everyone wishes this were true. However, our society has not grown mature enough to live up to these ideals. Many people still harbor hatred for other people merely because of their background or religious beliefs. Even if the people that have access to the data are not prejudiced at all, they know that there exist people who are prejudiced. This can allow them to abuse the information anyway. Governments are so big that it can not always monitor the behavior of its employees. As a result, individuals cannot trust that the government will do the ethical thing with this information. The government certainly intends to do the right thing, but the government cannot guarantee that some employee will not abuse the information. Fortunately, the EU recognizes some of these issues. The EU explicitly requires consent of the individual before processing any information related to ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc. It even allows governments to determine that this information cannot be processed even with the consent of the individual.3
The greatest good is served...
The biggest argument in favor of the government having the freedom to collect information is that it would serve the greater good. By cross referencing databases, inaccurate information can be corrected. This can eliminate waste of taxpayers’ money and prevent delays in the paying of benefits. Correlation of behavior could track down fraud and other miscreant behavior.4 Proactive searches could reveal patterns of behavior and make it easier to track down individuals committing crimes across boundaries not normally visible to investigators. Either of these alone is a big boon to the government. Together they are a powerful tool to reduce fraud and other crimes. As a result the government can protect its citizens better and more efficiently. Therefore, citizens can sleep easier at night, knowing that they are safer because of their government. Or are they?
The use of computer matching would allow agencies to discover information without a direct investigation. Under normal circumstances US agencies need to open a formal investigation and potentially obtain search warrants. With computer matching the US government can obtain information without doing either of these. As a result, it is tantamount to an illegal search.5 Without the knowledge that the government is investigation someone, US government can delve into the private lives of its citizens. With the power to incarcerate its citizens, it can be extremely dangerous to let the government have easy access to the private lives of its citizens. The requirement for search warrants balances this power because judges ensure that there is sufficient evidence to justify searching into an individual’s private space. Even though the US has regulations for requesting a computer match6, an inappropriate search parameter could yield information unintended. This is compounded by the fact that US law does not place any time limit on information collected. This means that the US can keep information collected years ago for a program that may not even exist anymore. As a result, computer matching has a broad base with which to search across and yield new information.
In the EU, information can only be retained to accomplish what it was collected for. Combined with the requirement that information is kept for only as long as necessary and citizens of the EU are protected from computer matching. For a government in the EU to use computer matching they would not be using the information for which it was originally collected. Not only that since EU governments can only keep information a limited amount of time, the information available to run computer matches across is limited. Unfortunately, the EU guidelines have a loophole that can be exploited by governments. Specifically around the definition of relevant data. Even though the EU places restrictions on how long a country can retain the information, more information than is required could be asked of its citizens. This can be used to increase the effectiveness of computer matching.
The result of all this, is an entity which can pry into the lives of people without any balancing power. Is this really for the greater good? No, without the appropriate balance, this power in the hands of the government will lead to abuses. These abuses can not be tolerated.
A better place to live?
Computer matching could make a country a better place to live. The more information that public services have, the better the services could be tailored to the needs of citizens. Whether collected directly or gathered through computer matching, it could yield targeted services where they would be needed most. The elimination of data errors could happen through proactive computer matching which would be used to root out potential data issues. This will reduce waste and leave more funding available to dedicate towards services.
While this is all positive, but how does a government define what is better for its citizens? Where does it draw the line in terms of how much intrusion into personal lives is too much? Letting any one side determine these issues could lead to a one-sided view on what it should be. In the US government, there is strong debate over the rights of gay couples to get married. It is outside the scope of this paper to discuss the merits of each side of the discussion, but it is a relevant issue towards making the US a “better” place to live. President Bush firmly believes that the US would be better off without gay couples being married. Is his viewpoint any more relevant than another’s? The answer is a resounding no.
This leads to the question of entrusting the government to make decisions about what is better. Since laws are open to interpretation and individual opinions can sway the government one direction or another, the government cannot really be entrusted with too much information. Government attitudes can also shift dramatically as new people gain power, the information could be used in ways that were not originally intended or envisioned. Even though the new regime intends on making the country a better place to live, it will be based upon their viewpoint. Therefore, the government cannot be solely entrusted with this decision. The problem with this idea is that the government is responsible for making the country a better place to live. To balance these two, one needs to remove the temptation to use potentially private information to implement policies to make the country a better place to live. As a result, computer matching should not be a tool accessible to governments.
Governments do have the intention of making peoples lives better and safer. Both the US and EU have privacy laws to ensure that the rights of its citizens are not violated. In the complex world we live in, governments cannot guarantee that the ethical obligations of the government will be followed by everyone. The spirit of the laws enacted by the governments show that they have peoples’ best interests at heart. However, loopholes and new technology frontiers may pave the way to violate the rights of people.
Computer matching is one example of technology which can be disruptive to the privacy of people. US laws do not directly prevent the government from discovering information which it is prevented from collecting directly. The EU has a much stricter set of laws, but definitions of “public interest” and “relevant data” allows individual countries to loosen these restrictions. The laws in place are designed to protect the privacy of citizens and prevent their rights from being violated. But because of weaknesses in these laws the governments can break the veil of privacy. This paper has looked at the ethical implications of using these weaknesses by examining it from several different ethical viewpoints. In each case, the potential for violating the rights of individual outweigh the benefits of computer matching. Since the privacy of citizens is important to the US and EU (as seen by the laws they enact), ethically they should not use computer matching to gain information about their citizens.
1 Jacqueline Klosek, Data Privacy in the Information Age, Quorum Books, 2000, p. 134-135
2 Klosek, p. 30
3 Sara Baase, A Gift of Fire, Prentice Hall, 2003, p. 85
4 Richard P. Kusserow, "The Government Needs Computer Matching to Root Out Waste and Fraud," Communications of the ACM, June 1984, 27:6, p. 542-543
5 John Shattuck, "Computer Matching Is a Serious Threat to Individual Rights," Communications of the ACM, June 1984, 27:6, p. 538
6 Kusserow, p. 544