How Good Do We Want Our Policemen to Be?

Efficiency has killed privacy, and it bothers us that we don’t really miss it, and don’t know if we should.

It seems to me that the two potentially big outrage stories of the spring—the politicized IRS story and the data-mad NSA story—now have two things in common. First, they have both petered out as little or no evidence of nefarious activity has been discovered. Second, both pose the question, How good do we want our policemen to be?

It is true that anything having to do with the IRS gives me a bit of vertigo (sometimes I have to take a pill just to type the word `first’), so it’s possible I have missed something, but it seems to me that all the IRS did was try to make sense of a massive number of new filings involving highly technical questions, all done in order to make sure that people pay a Baby Bear amount of taxes—not too little, not too much, but just the right amount. Perhaps their approaches might leave something to be desired, but it seems to me that at worst, the IRS was guilty of a kind of profiling (examining every filing that featured certain terms), or, at best, using search techniques that seem highly prized in all sorts of new media and commercial ventures. The surest sign that there is little to this story is the great big boost the investigation received when they discovered IRS workers spent government money on conferences where they did Star Trek skits. At last, here was a boondoggle we could understand!

Just as the IRS now has the technological capacity to more efficiently identify filings for scrutiny (we’re still waiting to see if the scrutiny went too far), we see that the NSA has the capacity to gather tremendous amounts of information about us, although there is the constant suspicion that what they do with it is illegitimate. But some of this is just discomfort with something that’s new. Is the government prying? The government knows who I call, but so do other people—anybody around me when I dial, the person I’ve called, people sitting around that person, people who see my logs. The government may or may not know what I buy, but again, so does the clerk, the shopkeeper, my neighbor standing with me on line. What freaks us out is the realization that some distant, omnipotent power has interest in these trivialities, and can somehow learn something larger about ourselves from this data.

How efficient do we want out cops to be? We like seeing a cop on the beat, but we might have mixed feelings about CCTV. But what’s the real difference? We want an IRS that can correctly collect taxes, but we want them to be more vigilant about collecting our neighbor’s taxes than our own. We want the NSA to interrupt terror plots, but we’re worried that they know I phone my bookie more than I call my sister. The outrage, it seems, comes mostly from ignorance—not really knowing what these agencies are capable of, not really knowing if there is sufficient supervision, and mostly, not really knowing how good we want our policemen to be. Efficiency has killed privacy, and it really bothers us that we don’t really miss it, and don’t know if we should.

Jamie Malanowski

Jamie Malanowski is a writer and editor. He has been an editor at Time, Esquire and most recently Playboy, where he was Managing Editor.