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The Problem with Data Commons

The doctrine of sin is my problem with this idea.

There is growing interest in the creation of something called a "data commons."

As Leon Neyfakh reported in the May 20, 2011 issue of The Boston Globe (, "a small group of thinkers is suggesting an entirely new way of understanding our relationship with the data we generate." What they propose, in brief, is a continuous collecting of as much data about as many people as possible, to be deposited in something they call a "data commons."

This amounts to a huge data base of anonymous (they promise) information about everyone and everything we do. The data commons is "a sort of public garden where everyone brings their data to be anonymized and made available to researchers working in the public interest." And right there is my problem with this idea.

More specifically, the doctrine of sin is my problem with this idea.

We all know what data and statistics are agreeable to - just about whatever you want them to say. Give "researchers working in the public interest" more data and you multiply the many ways that data can be combined and interpreted to promote whatever policies seem to be of interest for the moment.

The assumption that people working in the public interest are strictly objective about how they deal with your personal data is naive, if not foolish. All people who can get at data want that data to support their projects. Researchers working in the public interest are not immune to political and personal agendas. So should we give them even more data to spin however they choose for whatever project or proposal they'd like to see funded or enacted?

I don't think so. Data breaches - compromising anonymity - are inevitable as well. And, as Mr. Neyfakh points out, "bad actors will always be able to cross-reference data sets with each other, figure out who's who, and harm individuals who never explicitly agreed to be included in the first place."

All of which is to explain my present stand-off with the Commerce Department, which is threatening to levy a fine on me if I don't fill out and return the enhanced census form known as "The American Community Survey." The information requested here is more intrusive than anything I've ever been asked to supply for a job application, doctor's office, insurance policy, or anything else. And this one wants my name and social security number as well. But they promise it's all anonymous.

A call to the Commerce Department was not very helpful, and I was officially warned that I'd better fill this out or they're turning me over to the Justice Department.

I read the law online and didn't see any reference to a penalty, so I wrote my congressman, Mr. Frank Wolfe. He, evidently, is very busy at the time and has not been able to respond for the past week. Perhaps he has too much other data to sift through.

Human beings are sinners, friends. Don't give them any more information about yourself than is absolutely essential, and fight them as far as you can for anything more.

Additional related texts: Psalm 12; Psalm 58; Romans 3

A conversation starter: "Do you think that Americans can be trusted to do what's right with as much data as they can gather about you?"

T. M. Moore

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
Books by T. M. Moore

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