The Tyranny of the Knowledgeable Ignorant

“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”
― Aldous Huxley

“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.”
― Stephen Hawking

“He knows nothing; and he thinks he knows everything. That points clearly to a political career.”
― George Bernard Shaw

Now over a decade ago, prior to September 11, I developed a software application with the help of my business partners, the purpose of which was to extract data from telecom billing records, analyze it, and create streamlined reports our auditors could use to more quickly identify areas where our large corporate clients were paying for unnecessary or obsolete features and could reduce their expenses. The size of these clients and, by default, the number of individual call records for their employees was enormous, which meant that trying to comb through the common 20+ boxes of paper bills was impossible to do with any efficiency before the next month’s 20+ boxes arrived.

It was a valuable service—sometimes the savings for dropping something as simple as fees, legitimately charged before Ma Bell’s court-ordered divestiture, as insurance against “inside wiring” faults, amounted to as much as $20,000 a month. I felt good about it.
But there was always the knowledge, lurking in the back of my mind, that those other bits of data that I didn’t use could be used by someone with another objective, perhaps less “principled” than I with respect to individual privacy. Just by sorting that very same information in another way, I could have had access to every local and long distance phone call made by every employee of the company. I could have identified where a call had originated, down to the individual station/cubicle. I could have known where every call had terminated, how many calls had been placed to that same number, what day they had been made and what time to the millisecond. Sometimes I had the length of the call, too, but simple subtraction of the contents of one database cell from another would have yielded the same information.

I was never tasked with doing that—usually the information was already organized in that way on the paper bills for the company’s accountants to allocate expenses to the its various internal departments.

Another division of our company installed and monitored the computerized “switches” that resided on premise at large companies. The purposes of the monitoring was to ensure the switches were working properly and to troubleshoot things like circuit boards gone bad so the ebb and flow of normal business operations went uninterrupted. It, too, was a valuable service. It, too, had access to individual call data—they could even tell when an individual phone was “off-hook” whether a phone call was placed or not.

Then, one day, they were contacted by the police and asked to report on a particular station and a particular number called. If I remember correctly, there was some evidence that a certain employee was involved in illegal activity of some sort and, though doing work for the employing company, was running the business of another on the first company’s wallet. It was exciting, no doubt. Like participating in a realtime NCIS or CSI operation. Our new-found power was exhilirating. The next thing we knew, the marketing arm of our sister division was suggesting that we offer a service to monitor and report when similar activity might be occurring. And the hair went up on my neck.

Only one thing had changed—intent. In a New York minute (apropos since the companies monitored by our sister division were actually in New York), the very same data we had used to identify cost-saving opportunities would now be used to monitor the behavior of people. Someone sitting in her cubicle in a high-rise office building who called home everyday at 3:00 pm for a 30-second conversation to make sure her kids had arrived safely after school would now be the target of scrutiny—tasked, without even knowing it, with proving that she was innocent of anything other than assuring herself that her children were safe. And all because an IT guy sitting in New Jersey thought he’d found something sordid.

Now, 12 years later, we have an IT guy named Edward Snowden supposedly sitting in an airport in Moscow, having stirred up all manner of ignorant people. The question is not “Were we collecting data?” because only an ignorant fool would even bother to ask. The question is “Why?” And then whether or not the answer to “Why?” crosses a line of human dignity, human decency, human authority over other humans. I didn’t say “the” line, because recent events in our country pretty well suggest that there is disagreement about where that line is and perhaps whether or not such a line exists. The tyranny of the ignorant is that the very same line that “protects” them abuses others equal to them in right and privilege, at least according to the Declaration of Independence.

Benjamin Franklin is alleged to have written a few years prior to the day whose anniversary we just celebrated, “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Insert “have” in place of “deserve” and I think it much closer to the truth of humanity. Assuming, of course, that either, in an absolute sense, is possible.

My own personal jury is still out on Edward Snowden, because I have pitifully little knowledge of actual fact. In a country where 16-year-old cashiers are deemed experts in handwriting and TSA agents frisk 90-year-olds wearing soiled undergarments and presidents wage war on the basis of weapons of mass destruction that do not exist, I do note, however, that in the midst of all the partisan bickering and nonsense, the Congress has become curiously quiet.

And the hair has gone up on my neck.

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