What else should that discussion cover? There’s what the intelligence world calls the “mosaic effect” — when a nugget of data that is insignificant on its own takes on new meaning when combined with other bits of information. The White House warned of the risks of this effect in a new set of open-data rules it unveiled last month. There’s what big data means for the relationship between the government and large tech firms; beyond PRISM, for instance, the White House relies on data held by Google and Facebook to line up participants in its frequent online “hangouts” and chats. And then there’s what it means to be truly informed about what rights we’re giving away to the government — the end-user terms of service, in other words, for big data programs.
Of course, old frameworks take us only so far. “The constitutional text provides us with the general principle that we aren’t subject to unreasonable searches by the government,” wrote yet another former University of Chicago law professor. “It can’t tell us the Founders’ specific views on the reasonableness of an NSA computer data-mining operation.” That was Sen. Barack Obama in The Audacity of Hope, not long before entering the White House.
In his “military-industrial complex” speech in 1961, President Dwight Eisenhower warned the American people that “in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.” He said, “It is the task of statesmanship to mold, to balance and to integrate these and other forces, new and old, within the principles of our democratic system, ever aiming toward the supreme goals of our free society.”
More than 50 years later, the task of the modern statesman and stateswoman is to engage the public in the work of integrating the old and the new.
And if they don’t, well, see you on the Internet.
Nancy Scola is a journalist covering technology and politics. From 2001 to 2005, she served on the staff of the House government oversight committee.