Steve Sachs Duke


Saturday, April 10, 2004


Privacy, Shmivacy: Defenders of civil liberties have found another intrusive government program to worry about: looking for people who cheat on their taxes, and actually catching them. According to the AP:

State revenue agencies across the nation are hunting for tax evaders with new high-tech tools: computer programs that mine an increasing number of databases for clues on the finances of people and businesses.


In Massachusetts, for example, the state tax agency can scan a U.S. Customs and Border Protection database of people who paid duties on big-ticket items entering the country - so anyone who fails to pay the state the required 5-percent "use tax" gets flagged.

The state also has tried comparing motor-vehicle registration data with tax returns, looking for people who might be driving Rolls Royces or Jaguars but declaring only a small income, Revenue Commissioner Alan LeBovidge said.

Of course, an eminently sensible policy can't be without its detractors:

The new tools have reaped hundreds of millions of dollars in increased tax collections, officials say. But the government's growing sophistication at collecting and scrutinizing data about taxpayers is sounding alarms among privacy advocates.

Perhaps I'm an authoritarian at heart, but I just don't see this as an invasion of privacy. The system also allows officials to find tax cheats who stop paying taxes after they change addresses, or who receive professional licenses. To my mind, the greater outrage is that a government-licensed doctor or lawyer might get away with not filing a tax return. Most middle-income Americans have their taxes withheld, and never get the chance to cheat; why should we be so forgiving to the wealthier Americans who fail to pay their due? For "privacy advocates," however,

such methods can violate a fundamental privacy principle: data collected for one purpose shouldn't be used for another without a person's permission.

I don't get it. The government has legitimate access to my tax records, and to my vehicle registration data; putting two and two together is simply good police work. If the FBI were trying to indict Al Capone on tax evasion charges, would we be upset if they looked up the car he drives? It's also not as if any of this information is personally sensitive (like medical information or juvenile criminal records). Anyone who wants to find out about a member of the Missouri Bar can simply check the website; why shouldn't the Missouri Department of Revenue be entitled to do the same?

The worst thing about such Chicken-Little scares is that they distract attention from real privacy threats, like these:

WASHINGTON - New light-scanning technology borrowed from the slaughterhouse promises to help hospital workers, restaurant employees — one day, even kids — make sure that hand washing zaps some germs that can carry deadly illnesses.

A device the size of an electric hand dryer detects fecal contamination and pinpoints on a digital display where on a person's hands more scrubbing is needed.

eMerge Interactive Inc., a struggling technology company in Sebastian, Fla., is hoping to tweak light scanners it already sells to beef plants to detect the same kinds of nasty germs on humans.


Using a specific light wavelength, the scanners cause a fluorescence in even minuscule amounts of fecal contamination that could carry dangerous bacteria like E. coli; it shows up on a built-in display as a bright red spot on a person's dirty hand.

Can an Orwellian future be far behind? As usual, Gary Larson predicted it long ago:




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