Hoarders. We all know 'em. Some of us have family members who are hoarders. Some of us ARE hoarders. Some of us are hoarders who are trying not to hoard. Some of us try, when we have time, to declutter, only to find entropy setting in again. I wrote in 2008
about the show Clean House
, which takes a somewhat more humorous look at clutter.
But clutter isn't just something we battle with in our homes. It isn't just old catalogs, dozens packages of toilet paper and cans of tomatoes that were on sale, old Sunday New York Times Magazine
sections from two years ago that you swear you'll do the puzzle sometime. Data can be clutter too. Where I work, you have to hang onto every version of every single document you generate. So you'd better like creating folders in Windows, or you'll be screwed. This is "data clutter."
The problem with data clutter, like any other clutter, is that the more you accumulate, the more trouble you'll have finding what you need. Just as you keep buying voltage testers because you can't find one when you need it, you can't find the guy who's plotting a terrorist attack when you have 500,000 names on a list of potential terrorists (including, presumably, some political enemies of the previous administration). You can't find anything that might be meaningful when combined with other data if you're sweeping up the online home shopping habits of a little old lady in Grand Rapids.
If you read only one article about the surveillance state that George Bush left us and Barack Obama seems bound and determined to continue, read this one by Glenn Greenwald
Every debate over expanded government surveillance power is invariably framed as one of "security v. privacy and civil liberties" -- as though it's a given that increasing the Government's surveillance authorities will "make us safer." But it has long been clear that the opposite is true. As numerous experts (such as Rep. Rush Holt) have attempted, with futility, to explain, expanding the scope of raw intelligence data collected by our national security agencies invariably impedes rather than bolsters efforts to detect terrorist plots. This is true for two reasons: (1) eliminating strict content limits on what can be surveilled (along with enforcement safeguards, such as judicial warrants) means that government agents spend substantial time scrutinizing and sorting through communications and other information that have nothing to do with terrorism; and (2) increasing the quantity of what is collected makes it more difficult to find information relevant to actual terrorism plots. As Rep. Holt put it when arguing against the obliteration of FISA safeguards and massive expansion of warrantless eavesdropping power which a bipartisan Congress effectuated last year:
It has been demonstrated that when officials must establish before a court that they have reason to intercept communications -- that is, that they know what they are doing -- we get better intelligence than through indiscriminate collection and fishing expeditions.
So the next time your wingnut colleague tells you that if you have nothing to hide, you shouldn't object to the government sweeping up all your phone calls and internet activity, remind him of the guy down the hall, the one who reminds you of Milton from Office Space
, the one with 27 years of papers scattered willy-nilly across his desk who can't find anything in the avalanche of paper.