Information–don’t we all want more of it? Our government sure does. But a piece of information written down or entered in a database becomes abstract and loses its original meaning. This is fine if you have strictly limited and well-defined goals for collecting the information. But when your dragnet is open-ended, information cheapens humanity. Combined with arrogance and racism, it leads to incidents like what happened in Los Angeles this week.
The United States government recently picked out a dozen Middle Eastern countries and required boys and men from those countries as young as 16 to report to INS offices and register. When they obeyed the law, hundreds were arrested and abused in the frightening conditions described by the Reuters article. The incident inevitably raised the specter of the Nazis, who would order the Jews of a city to meet at a certain time and place, load them into cattle cars, and take them away.
The INS has since reported that most of the men and boys checked out fine and were released within 24 hours. As if that made the arrests OK!
One can rant on for hours about the political meaning of this information screening, but what concerns us as information processing professionals is the light it casts on data gathering and data mining.
I recently found out that my company made some mistakes on my 401K plan. It was routinely corrected, but the results on my account might look strange when taken out of context. Another time, I set off an alarm someplace and drew the police because somebody had mistakenly removed my account from the alarm system. It was for details no greater than these that Middle Eastern men are going to jail.
We do not like to share details about ourselves, because intuitively we sense that people will judge us wrongly. The situation is rarely as dramatic as it was in Los Angeles this week. We often don’t tell our friends about medical conditions we have. Perhaps we say, “I don’t want to be considered a cancer patient (or a diabetic, or an HIV-positive person, or whatever); I want to be seen for myself.”
Many people even express the same restraint through religious doctrine. They say, “Only God can judge.” Abstracted from the religious setting, what they’re saying is that we cannot treat people fairly when judging them by information that is necessarily limited.
Our government feels no such sense of restraint. It is willing to throw all chances of winning cooperation from the people whose cooperation it needs the most in its current anti-terrorist endeavor–Middle Eastern immigrants. It is determinedly putting in place policies that will violate the civil liberties of all of us, immigrant and native alike. It assumes it can get away with its current violation of human decency, because it assumes that no one will protest except the compatriots of the victims. We must prove it wrong.
Where is the information search taking our country?