Prying With Statistics

PRYING WITH STATISTICS….The NSA spying program raises plenty of sensitive issues, but at least one of them hasn’t received the close scrutiny it deserves: it’s fundamentally a system for identifying criminals by statistical analysis. Americans need to come to grips with whether they approve of this.

Take a different, but equally incendiary example. Suppose that we could semi-reliably create a statistical portrait of child molesters: their age, geographical location, gender, and calling and buying patterns. Suppose they tend to rent certain kinds of videos, make phone calls to certain kinds of chat lines, and call up other known child molesters.

Needless to say, the FBI could track these patterns using the same methods as the NSA and then exploit the results to create lists of “possible child molesters.” And it might work. But would we be OK with the FBI tapping someone’s phone just because they fit a statistical profile? Or staking out their house? Or investigating their friends?

And if we can do it for suspected terrorists and child molesters, how about tax evaders and unlicensed gun owners? Can we tap their phones too because they’re the “kind of person” who might be breaking the law? Should a court grant a search warrant based on a statistical pattern rather than a showing of specific fact?

And if not, why not? After all, if you’re not doing anything wrong, why would you object to being investigated? And if the statistical patterns just happen to target lots of wealthy Republicans or rural white gun collectors ? well, that’s how the cookie crumbles. If that’s what the profiling turns up, then that’s what the profiling turns up.

Any problems with that?

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