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Tuesday, September 26, 2006


Time for my quarterly blog update (I'll spare you my grumbles about why I can't seem to find time to do this more often).

Why is it that the U.S. seems so persistently to pay less attention to safeguards than its European peers? Of course, as soon as I write those words, I have to ask myself, "Who is this 'U.S.' that you are talking about?" Fair enough--there is no monolith that holds singular values. All we perceive is the de facto outcome of political battles, which doesn't necessarily tell us anything about the specific values that informed individuals' actions. So better to ask: What is it about the U.S. that its policymaking so often slights safeguards?

Three reports in today's New York Times prompt this question. One is on the National Research Council's review for Congress of the National Nanotechnology Initiative established in the 1990s. In the Times reporter's words, "the report cautioned that too little money was being invested in understanding the potential health and environmental risks of manipulating matter on such a small scale [billionths of a meter]."
Barnaby J. Feder, "Study Says U.S. Has Lead in Nanotechnology: A Hopeful Report Also Warns That Risks Deserve More Study," New York Times, 26 September 2006, C6.
The second concerns the U.S. program that permits intelligence agencies to monitor international financial transactions for traces of terrorist activity. The European Union's Article 29 data protection working party reports that the program lacks the safeguard--independent supervision--needed to make it consistent with European law. "That's a crucial point for us," says the German who heads the panel. "There must be independent supervision."
Eric Lichtblau, "Europe Panel Faults Sifting Of Bank Data," New York Times, 26 September 2006, A1, A19. See also Tom Zeller, Jr., "93,754,333 Examples of Data Nonchalance," New York Times, 25 September 2006, C5
The third report is on proposals in Congress to have the Department of Homeland Security build a wall (of fence, vehicle barriers, and electronic surveillance) along portions of the U.S. border with Mexico. In the wrong hands, walls can keep people in as well as out, so some kind of safeguard--e.g., independent supervision--might be appropriate here, too.
Eric Lipton, "Lawmakers Agree to Spend $1 Billion on Tightening Border," New York Times, 26 September 2006, A21.
The overall pattern seems pretty clear, but the reasons for it puzzle this observer.