Skipping Down the Bipartisan Path Toward Big Data

Photo credit: Rob Crawley (CC-By-2.0)

Comedian George Carlin once observed that “the word ‘bipartisan’ means some larger-than-usual deception is being carried out.” This has certainly been the case in Congress recently, especially on education issues (case in point: the Every Student Succeeds Act, in which the Republicans proved they can “govern” by giving the Obama administration basically everything it wanted). Now congressional Republicans led by Speaker Paul Ryan are skipping down the bipartisan path yet again on the issue of Big Data and lifetime citizen surveillance.

Why do Republicans sometimes embrace the very worst schemes of the totalitarian Left? Can they not think through the implications of what they’re endorsing? In this case, the implications are extraordinarily dangerous to the foundational American principles of individual liberty and self-determination.

The vehicle for imposing expanded citizen surveillance is a new federal panel called the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking. The Speaker worked with Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) on the legislation to create the Commission, which “is charged with reviewing the inventory, infrastructure, and protocols related to data from federal programs and tax expenditures while developing recommendations for increasing the availability and use of this data in support of rigorous program evaluation.”

The appeal of this Commission to “conservatives” is that it will recommend ways to evaluate federal programs and see which ones work and which are a waste of money We need a commission for this? If we just assume all federal programs are a waste, we’ll be right at least 95 percent of the time. And the federal government routinely ignores research, such as the massive evidence that Head Start is useless, that doesn’t support its preferred policies.

But “program evaluation” is the excuse. And the basis of the Commission’s work will be expanded sharing of personal data on American citizens. In a free society, that’s a price too high to pay.

The authorizing statute makes it clear that the Commission must explore new and exciting ways of sharing personal citizen data. The Commission is directed to:

  • “determine the optimal arrangement for which administrative data on Federal programs . . . may be integrated and made available to facilitate program evaluation, continuous improvement, policy-relevant research, and cost-benefit analyses by qualified researchers and institutions . . .”;
  • “make recommendations on how data infrastructure, database security, and statistical protocols should be modified to best fulfill” these objectives;
  • “consider whether a clearinghouse for program and survey data should be established and how to create such a clearinghouse”;
  • determine “which survey data [this] administrative data may be linked to, in addition to linkages across administrative data series . . .”;
  • determine what incentives may facilitate interagency sharing of information to improve programmatic effectiveness . . .”

Although the statute mentions protecting privacy and data-security, its general thrust is to determine how the federal data troves can be shared among various agencies and with researchers.

The composition of the Commission is likewise designed to reach the desired goal of increasing disclosure of personal data. Of the fifteen commissioners (appointed by the President, the Speaker, and the House Minority Leader), only five are to be “expert[s] in protecting personally-identifiable (sic) information and data minimization.” The rest are to be researchers and program-administrators – people whose professional lifeblood is access to data, and who will reliably advocate for fewer restrictions on that access.

One of the Commission’s hot-button issues is whether to allow a federal student unit-record system. A unit-record system would enable the federal government to collect personally identifiable information (PII) on individual higher-education students and link that data to lifelong workforce data. Essentially, it would allow government to track individuals throughout their lives by linking their education to their employment outcomes.

What’s wrong with a unit-record system? For one thing, it would suck all post-secondary students into a massive federal database, without their consent or even their knowledge, merely because they enrolled in college. For another, it would inevitably burst all boundaries to include any data that might conceivably be connected to education – employment, health, military service, financial status, criminality — world without end, amen. And this ever-expanding dossier would be permanent.

But surely the government can be trusted to protect this data. Right. The U.S. Department of Education (USED) has been found shockingly lax in protecting the enormous amount of sensitive PII it already has, primarily through its office of Federal Student Aid. After a hearing uncovered the practically non-existent data-security at USED, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) observed that “almost half the population of the United States of America has their personal information sitting in this database which is not secure.”

But security aside, the compilation of enormous amounts of personal data on American citizens fundamentally changes the relationship between the individual and government. It has an intimidating effect on the individual – even if the data is never used. This is especially true when the collector wields the force of law. A citizen who is afraid of what the government has on him is a citizen who will be loath to challenge that government.

Because such surveillance and tracking is (or should be) anathema in America, Congress wisely prohibited it in the Higher Education Act. But goaded by special-interest vultures well-funded by such rogues as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Congress is – on a bipartisan basis – weakening.

An early sign was introduction of the Student Right to Know Before You Go Act, which would allow a unit-record system with the excuse of informing prospective college students about the earnings of particular colleges’ graduates. This surveillance and tracking bill was co-sponsored by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), whose family, you may recall from the campaign, is from Cuba. CUBA, for crying out loud. How can someone from Cuba not realize the dangers of the government’s tracking individuals throughout their lives?

And now we have the bipartisan Commission to produce a glossy report recommending repeal of the unit-record ban in service of research and “consumer information.”

On October 21 the Commission first heard testimony from an array of “stakeholders,” all but one of whom urged opening up citizens’ PII for more research, analysis, and tracking. Yes, they conceded, we must protect privacy, but it’s imperative that greater and more accessible databases be created so that the government can better help citizens run their own lives.

Parent activist Cheri Kiesecker has compiled a valuable compendium of the testimony and agendas of these witnesses. For example, the American Statistical Association bemoaned the bother of having to go before institutional review boards to justify research on unsuspecting citizens. The representative of the Workforce Data Quality Campaign confided that current restrictions sometimes force stakeholders to use “non-standard processes, [to] go through personal relationships or particular capacities within agencies at particular times.” According to this witness, federal bureaucrats are already giving their buddies access to restricted data. And we’re going to increase the personal data these criminal bureaucrats have access to?

Most of the data-mongers made it clear they want much more than just college students’ records linked to workforce data. Particularly blunt about this was the witness from Booz Allen Hamilton (former employer of Edward Snowden), which specializes in predictive intelligence. His company, he said, wants a centralized federal database from every conceivable federal source. “For example,” he said, “eligibility and participation tracked by the Social Security Administration – when combined with taxpayer data and tax subsidies from the IRS, survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau, and data from other agencies, such as HHS and HUD – could exponentially . . . enhance our potential to draw insights that could not have been derived before.”

No kidding. Compared to this vision, the NSA database is a filing cabinet.

The lonely witness who opposed this well-funded propaganda onslaught was my colleague Emmett McGroarty of American Principles Project.  McGroarty emphasized the intimidating effect that governmental compilation of citizen dossiers has on supposedly free individuals. “Our republic rests on the idea that the citizen will direct government. That cannot happen where government sits in a position of intimidation over the individual.”

The most recent Commission hearing, held on March 13, featured a federal bureaucrat who pushed for a fundamental culture shift in government. She argued that we need a “Yes, unless” expectation of data-sharing among federal agencies – in which all bureaucrats err on the side of data-sharing and “recognize the risks of failing to share data.” And, she advocated, the federal government should help states harmonize all their databases across different organizations, “with capacity to roll up to a national level.” Thus could we achieve data Shangri-La – all states sharing citizens’ personal data with each other and with the feds.

The dangers of such a wellspring of personal data are apparent from a recent Washington Post article about China’s grand plan for data-use. Though no one is (officially) contemplating this type of thing here, the totalitarian leanings of too many in government should give us pause. The report begins:

Imagine a world where an authoritarian government monitors everything you do, amasses huge amounts of data on almost every interaction you make, and awards you a single score that measures how “trustworthy” you are.

In this world, anything from defaulting on a loan to criticizing the ruling party, from running a red light to failing to care for your parents properly, could cause you to lose points.

And in this world, your score becomes the ultimate truth of  who you are – determining whether you can borrow money, get your children into the best schools or travel abroad; whether you get a room in a fancy hotel, a seat in a top restaurant – or even just get a date.

This is the “social credit” system that China plans to implement by 2020. “The ambition is to collect every scrap of information available online about China’s companies and citizens in a single place – and then assign each of them a score based on their political, commercial, social and legal ‘credit.’”

This system would harvest all online interactions and combine them with government data — court, police, banking, tax, education, and employment records. Can we see parallels with the massive federal database advocated by some witnesses at the Commission hearings?

Like our federal officials, the Chinese government offers a plausible reason for its Big Brother plan. With the new system, the government argues, it will be able to detect and punish “companies selling poisoned food or phony medicine, to expose doctors taking bribes and uncover con men preying on the vulnerable.”

And in alignment with the mushrooming number of “public-private partnerships” in the U.S., private companies in China are setting up credit databases that grade citizens on their behavior and dole out favors (such as more efficient car-rental) based on their scores.

One American lawyer working in China warns that if the government can overcome the technological challenges of establishing this system, it would wield extraordinary power to keep people “in line.” Imagine how social-media posts that criticize the government would torpedo a citizen’s score. This lawyer sees the scheme as a technologically turbocharged Cultural Revolution.

Would this happen in America if Congress established a central database? Unlikely – for now. But with so many well-funded “stakeholders” straining at the bit to get access to personal citizen data, for uses limited only by their own imaginations – and with so many of them openly advocating increased surveillance and tracking — it’s virtually certain we’ll head down a road that would make our founders shudder.

Currently, federal data resides in “silos” – education data related to education, IRS data related to income and taxes, Medicaid/Medicare data related to healthcare, etc. – that are in most respects separate from each other.  Contrary to the arguments of the Commission’s witnesses, this isn’t a problem – it’s a good thing. It is a check on the natural tendency of centralized government to overstep boundaries and increase its power. We knock down the walls of these silos at our peril.

“Conservative” politicians ought to understand this instinctively. It’s time for free-born American citizens to remind them.

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