Just Because You Can Doesn't Mean You Should

Yesterday's cross-post at The Omnipotent Poobah Speaks and Bring It On resulted in some good debate about the merits of a DNC plan to data mine various sources for a "targeted" list for donations and get-out-the-vote campaigns. Our position, shared by some, was that it was a bad idea. However, a substantial number disagreed.

We read the comments closely and carefully considered their well-framed arguments, most of which we had considered before writing the post. In some cases, we didn't wholly disagree with them, but we remain unconvinced - and here's why.

When new ideas surface, people usually ask one of two questions at the outset of the debate. One is "can we do this?" The other is "should we do this?"

Clearly, the answer to the first question is mostly yes:
  • Is it technologically feasible to build such a database? Yes.
  • Is the data already in the public domain? Yup.
  • Can it help defeat Republicans? Possibly, although I'm considerably less convinced than our dissenters.
But when we ask "should we do this?", it seems to us the answers are less than clear.

The Poobah strongly believes that just because data exists in the public domain it is no good argument for harvesting it. The private data of private citizens should belong to those citizens. We don't have laws to that effect, but we should and we would heartily endorse any effort to roll back the damage already done. We're not being Pollyana about this. We know this is very unlikely and monstrously difficult, but so is gun control and quite a few people believe that is an issue worth fighting for.

Some would argue that the mining furthers the goal of getting a more sane set of laws via new candidates, but we're old enough to not hold our breath for that one. We also believe that from a purely moral standpoint it's wrong. It's a bit like saying it's OK for me to rob a bank because my next door neighbor did it. Both of us would be equally wrong.

We believe there is real danger and substantial annoyance involved with data mining. The more hands that touch a piece of data, the more likely it is to be changed without permission, used for some purpose that was never intended, or fall into the hands of someone who shouldn't have it. It also helps propagate a problem that is already out of control.

Our guess is that if you asked a victim of identity theft, they would be considerably more concerned than most people about their data being handed out to yet one more faceless entity. Even if they are well-meaning democrats. They understand the true value of data in a way that a non-victim probably doesn't. They know the damage that errors and theft of their private data can cause. For them, this is not an academic question, it is real damage pure and simple.

Consider this - there is probably no more loathed job in the world than telemarketer. Who out there has never cursed their existence when the phone rang? If you say, "not me" I'd submit your idea of the truth is akin to Dubya's. The fact that this data is in the hands of a political party rather than the hands of say, Citibank, doesn't matter a whit. A nuisance is a nuisance, no matter who does it or what high purpose they have.

How about spam? Much of that arrives courtesy of public domain data. Several years ago a local candidate for a county office here - as it happens, a Republican - decided he'd go the data mining route and send spam e-mails and telesolicit potential supporters. He lost the election and the incessant calling and e-mailing was cited as a primary cause.

We'll concede that data mining could produce data with the potential to bolster democratic candidates, but we believe that's questionable too. Many people, including us, make it a point to never buy or donate anything to an entity that telemarkets or spams. Many "targeted" campaigns rake in more money for the subcontractor than for the company or organization that hired them. Learning from the lessons of the Food for Oil Program, we'd prefer it get there by a more direct route. It's a bad move because it offends many of the same people we are trying to sway.

Case in point? Today's monthly solicitation from the DNC for money to beat the bad guys. We get plenty of e-mail from them too.

Do we donate?

Not anymore. Their constant cry for alms has worn out its welcome. We've never been much of a believer of tithing, regardless if for a church or a political party. We have a firm policy of never donating to a telephone solicitor, e-mail spammer, door-to-door shill, or mass mailer. We do donate - plenty, in fact. But, we believe that's our choice and we shouldn't be hounded or goaded into doing it regardless of how good the cause may be.

To those who disagreed, we believe you made some very persuasive arguments. We're proud that you stand behind them and are open to debate. This sort of debate is vital to choosing the best path and we think you've helped that along tremendously. If only more people took the time for that, we wouldn't be having this conversation to begin with.

Oh, and by the way, this isn't a big enough issue to stop us from voting the slimy asshats out. That is important, but for us, not as important as sticking to what we believe is right while defending you for sticking to your guns as well.

The Poobah salutes you!

Truth Told by Omnipotent Poobah, Thursday, March 09, 2006

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