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eye in keyhole

The following is an updated post originally appearing on the Blogger Missouri Education Watchdog site in June 2013.

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If Common Core reading lists truly want to create “critical thinkers”, maybe Orwell’s 1984 and Kafka’s The Digital Person should be required reading. Students could compare/contrast the two authors’ views on privacy. From the Atlantic and Why Should We Even Care If the Government Is Collecting Our Data?:

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As people have tried to make sense of the recent revelations about the government’s mass data-collection efforts, one classic text is experiencing a spike in popularity: George Orwell’s 1984 has seen a 7,000 percent increase in sales over the last 24 hours.*

But wait! This is the wrong piece of literature for understanding the NSA’s programs, argues legal scholar Daniel J. Solove. In his book, The Digital Person, Solove writes that the troubles with the collection of massive amounts of personal data in databases are distinct from those of government surveillance, the latter being the focus of 1984. He summed up his argument in a later paper (emphasis added):

Many commentators had been using the metaphor of George Orwell’s 1984 to describe the problems created by the collection and use of personal data. I contended that the Orwell metaphor, which focuses on the harms of surveillance (such as inhibition and social control) might be apt to describe law enforcement’s monitoring of citizens. But much of the data gathered in computer databases is not particularly sensitive, such as one’s race, birth date, gender, address, or marital status. Many people do not care about concealing the hotels they stay at, the cars they own or rent, or the kind of beverages they drink. People often do not take many steps to keep such information secret. Frequently, though not always, people’s activities would not be inhibited if others knew this information.

I suggested a different metaphor to capture the problems: Franz Kafka’s The Trial, which depicts a bureaucracy with inscrutable purposes that uses people’s information to make important decisions about them, yet denies the people the ability to participate in how their information is used. The problems captured by the Kafka metaphor are of a different sort than the problems caused by surveillance. They often do not result in inhibition or chilling. Instead, they are problems of information processing–the storage, use, or analysis of data–rather than information collection. They affect the power relationships between people and the institutions of the modern state. They not only frustrate the individual by creating a sense of helplessness and powerlessness, but they also affect social structure by altering the kind of relationships people have with the institutions that make important decisions about their lives.

Solove writes how this data gathering is disturbing to many people because of the power imbalance and the lack of people’s knowledge of where their data is going and how it is being used:

…why then are the NSA’s programs troubling? It’s not so much in the collection of the data per se (the surveillance part) but the holding and processing of that data in perpetuity. As Solove writes (emphasis added):

The NSA program involves a massive database of information that individuals cannot access. Indeed, the very existence of the program was kept secret for years. This kind of information processing, which forbids people’s knowledge or involvement, resembles in some ways a kind of due process problem. It is a structural problem involving the way people are treated by government institutions. Moreover, it creates a power imbalance between individuals and the government. To what extent should the Executive Branch and an agency such as the NSA, which is relatively insulated from the political process and public accountability, have a significant power over citizens? This issue is not about whether the information gathered is something people want to hide, but rather about the power and the structure of government.

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 (MEW note: Keep these bolded statements in mind for the next article and the government’s new planned intrusion into citizens’ lives)

A message to Common Core opponents concerned about data retrieval: determine a strategy to combat the storage and type of data retrieval currently being done and planned for the future. Data mining is here to stay and most Americans accept that premise. The storage, how the data is used and who controls the data are the primary concerns for the majority of people. Aggregate data mining for educational planning may not be a bad practice, however, the individual data mining and use of that individualized information is the issue to address.

What do you think the chances are of either one of these authors making a Common Core resource list? Here’s what I got when I searched for that question (in 2013):

 

common core resources

Orwell and Kafka are not listed in the resource list and didn’t make the cut.

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