Tuesday, July 15, 2008

In Which Our Heroine Ponders Conclusions

In my job, I spend a lot of time effectively fact checking. I'm not going to put something in a document unless I can back it up. The law says X and relevantly Y is what we've got on our hands, with a bit of nuance at point Z. In the kind of documents I have to deal with, you can't just assert, you've got to back up every statement until you get to your conclusion. Making it up as you go along is just not an option. Tempting? Sho nuff, but just not an option.

This is a trait that then goes forward into the rest of my life. If I'm going to fight with you about something, I'm going to make sure I have facts, etc to back it up. Maybe not quite as thoroughly as I might do in a work document, but I despise saying "oh,you remember that time when something sort of like this happened. You know..." Which is actually a bit of a problem as while I can recite entire plots of books, or poems or the facts of a case or song lyrics, actually naming a title, band name, case name or often a person's name is beyond me. I'm forever having to dig these things up, usually on line.

I was doing this today to respond to this conversation here and couldn't remember the name of the murder victim (may he rest in peace). As a consequence, I turned to ever trusty Google to find the name of it. Now, my Google-fu is well marked upon. I can find just about anything that's out there on the 'net with just a bit of information. There are a couple of legendary search stories out there, and that was before I got really good.***** I can talk about those later. This was a fairly mainstream news story at the time, and was relatively easy to find, I just had to come up with the search terms that would trigger a hit.

But when I had typed in "child rape murder kidnap Massachusetts" and hit return, it occured to me "Who will or could know that I've typed this in and searched on this topic?" Sure, I have a good explanation, and the truth should in most circumstances set you or I free. But what would I have to explain? And to who?

This is where I get staunch in my defense of civil liberties again, and for the same old reason. The standard line that comes up is "if you have nothing to hide, what's the problem?" Well, I have nothing to hide here, and even if I did I just confessed to it to all and sundry what I've been searching for on the internet, but I still have a problem.

All kinds of information gathering can be had, and facts are facts. But facts are totally useless without conclusions. And the intelligence putting together those conclusions can be completely at fault. Let me give you a set of facts, all true. You have a person who:

1) Has been reading the Koran. In fact, studying portions of it in depth.
2) Has been to China, Russia, Paraguay (a Hamas hotspot), and Columbia all within the space of a few months.
3) Is closely related to a known terrorist who operated on US soil.
4) Had close ties to someone on the 9.11 planes; and
5) Has an FBI file

you'd be forgiven for thinking that person is precisely the sort of person who should be detained in Guantanamo and waterboarded until they confessed to everything up to and including the kidnapping of the Lindberg baby. This is particularly when you find out that their most recent Google search involved rape and murder of children. But therein lies the problem - they are the same person. The same person who has a perfectly valid and non-sordid reason for conducting what at face value could be a rather lurid search on Google also has perfectly valid explanations for all those five files. I was backpacking through Asia and South America for a year. My time in China was spent with James, climbing Taoist holy mountains, getting a crash course in Taoism, Confuscionism and Bhuddism (since that's what you do when you're hanging with a good friend who's there researching his next books on East Asian religions, which if you're keen, you can find here), eating food of far uncertain origin, and petting pandas. Paraguay may indeed be a Hamas hotspot, but if you read down below a few years back you'll see my thoughts on it. Everyone knows about my half brother, and of course that explains the FBI file since I was three, when I was far more of a danger than I am now, mostly due to my habit of holding my breath until I passed out if I didn't go my own way. Somewhere between my profoundly pacifist beliefs and the fact that I am one of the most easily identified individuals around ("She went that way officer. She's six foot five. Can't miss her. Cracking bust.") I'm about as likely to commit a crime other than a motoring offense than I am to suddenly take the lead in a Broadway revival of "Kiss of the Spider Woman." Oh, and the study of the Koran? Anyone who's interested is more than welcome to a copy of my paper on "The Concept of the Mutawadir in Sharia Law Compared to the Hearsay Rule." If you can't sleep, it is better than Sominex. Every reason, completely innocent explanation. But if you don't have the explanation, just the "bare facts" I'm really quite dangerous.

And that's my concern. There's no need for me to explain my every activity to someone if I haven't contravened any laws. I have enough knowledge of FISA (the laws, not the international rowing organisation) and the terrorism laws to know what, and how, the data is gathered. I know enough about the internet to know that through cache, etc, nothing ever really disappears. There's all kinds of issues we need to worry about, and the recent passing of the surveillance bill in the U.S. Congress scares me senseless. But I'm still not sure where we can draw the lines, either. I'm certainly not going to trust major corporations to spy on me or protect my data - they have no reason to do so apart from their commercial interests and commercial interests can of course be bought out by the highest, or at least higher, bidder. But commercial companies don't have the ability to lock me up and torture me any further than the torture of "I want THAT one" which I usually have the ability to resist. At a certain level, I am resigned though opposed to my data being collected by the government. But I don't fear the collection. I fear the analysis of it by people who, to paraphrase Buzz Aldrin (I think) build rockets with thousands of gallons of rocket fuel by contracting out to the cheapest bidder. The intelligence of the people doing the analysing may not be enough to save us, and that is the bigger fear.

Gosh, I'm being depressing today!


*****I think the ultimate of this is about six years ago. My then boyfriend described a film he'd seen when he was a teenager on PBS. It was about junkyards in Appalachia. He wanted to track it down. He was a tech guy, talking to tech guys about this. They couldn't find it. It took me half an hour. Turns out even if you knew the name of the film (which he didn't until I found it) there were at that time only three whole references to it on the internet. He has never doubted my Google-fu again, and now if people need it found, they just ask me to find it.


Anonymous said...

No, not depressing. But interesting in your choices of cognitive biases.

After all, while you may be referencing your facts assiduously, backing everything up as you go along, you aren't checking that what you think of as a relevant fact actually supports your argument.

You can present certain facts as supporting your point; but whether they actually do or not is not your call.

Hence the very point.

Anne said...

Yes, but I have to at least present references to my facts. I can't just decide "this is the way it is." And you'd be amazed at the number of bald assertions that turn up all over the place unsupported.

But again, it is about the analysis of the facts. Law is indeed built on this. The facts stay the facts no matter what. And whether or not those facts create liability at law often depends on the analysis of the facts in accordance with the guidelines of the law. As an example, if you kill someone, the fact "X stabbed Y" may support a charge of murder. However, the fact that X stabbed Y in self defense may in fact negate the charge of murder entirely. X has still stabbed why, but the selection of facts and their analysis in connection with the applicable legal principles is what is going to matter. Selection of facts is automatically a limiting exercise. Otherwise everything in the entire world would have to be analysed every time for every issue, which is obviously impossible. But the analysis of the facts selected, that's where the real justice or injustice then lies.