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Harry Love

During the last part of the 20th century, the United States began developing a new form of governance that features the collection, collation and analysis of information about populations both here and around the world. The government uses surveillance, data collection, collation and analysis to identify problems, to head off potential threats, to govern populations, and to deliver valuable social services. Thus we have the Information State -- a nation that tries to identify and solve problems of governance through the collection, collation, analysis and production of information.

Increasing use of surveillance and data mining by public and private entities is a predictable result of accelerating developments in information technology. In fact, most surveillance in this era is likely to be in private hands. This poses three major dangers for our freedom. Because of the emphasis on prevention rather than apprehension and prosecution, the first danger is that government will create a parallel track of preventive law enforcement that routes around the traditional guarantees of the Bill of Rights.

Private power and public-private cooperation pose a greater danger. Because the Constitution does not reach private parties, government has increasing incentives to rely on private enterprise to collect and generate information for its use. This leads companies to amass and analyze more and more information about people in order to target new customers and reject undesirable ones. As computing power increases and storage costs decline, companies will seek to know more and more about their customers and sell this valuable information to other companies and to the government.

If we can't turn this practice off, what's the solution? We might begin by distinguishing between an authoritarian information state and a democratic information state. Authoritarian information states are information gluttons and information misers. Like gluttons, they grab as much information as possible because this helps maximize their power. Authoritarian states are information misers because they try to keep the information they collect -- and their own operations -- secret from the public. They try to treat everything that might embarrass them or undermine their authority as state secrets, and they multiply secret rules and regulations, which lets them claim to obey the law without having to account for what they do.

By contrast, democratic information states are information gourmets and information philanthropists. Like gourmets, they collect and collate only the information they need to ensure efficient government and national security. They do not keep tabs on citizens without justifiable reasons. They create a regular system of checks and procedures to avoid abuse. They stop collecting information when it is no longer needed and they discard information at regular intervals to protect privacy.

Ordinary citizens can no longer assume that what they do will be forgotten. Rather, records will be stored and collated with other information collected at other times and places. The greatest single protector of privacy -- amnesia -- will soon be a thing of the past. As technology improves and storage costs decline, the surveillance state becomes "the State that Never Forgets." Thus, we must retain our vigilance.

Harry Love of Bakersfield is a retired high school teacher who is active in the Sierra Club and Audubon Society. Community Voices is an expanded commentary. The Californian reserves the right to edit all submissions for length and clarity.