The Voltron Flim-Flam

I love the term “Voltron Flim-Flam” that Jon Stokes coins in this ARS Technica article about massive privacy invading data collection efforts that just won’t die:

The story goes something like this: elements in the government become convinced of the (mistaken) proposition that if they can just build a big enough database to suck up all the digital data that citizens generate about themselves online, then they can use data mining technologies to spot bad guy plots and disrupt them before they come to fruition. So they set out to build such a giant database, until some enterprising reporters uncover the project and reveal its existence to the public. Public outrage and government inquiry ensue and the database project is shut down. Except that it isn’t shut down; it still goes on under another name, until it’s uncovered again a few years later and the whole outrage-inquiry-“shutdown” farce repeats.

So it was with home secretary Jacqui Smith’s apparent capitulation to privacy advocates, in which she said that the UK’s spy center would shut down its £1 billion Mastering the Internet (MTI) project, which had the ambitious goal of storing all British electronic communications, from phone conversations to website visits. Except that she didn’t shut it down… or at least, not really.

And here we come to a familiar variant on the basic plot outlined above, a variant that I’ve now dubbed the Voltron Flim-flam, which goes like this: because one giant, centralized database is politically untenable, you make multiple databases in different places and link them to a single front-end via a federated query service, so that they function together exactly like one giant database. The US most recently pulled this trick with Real ID, and it turns out that this is what the UK did with MTI.

[Emphasis added]

Why is the siren song of massive data collection so irresistible to the governments of nominally free societies?

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