IRS overstepped power with data mining

The agency needs to be held accountable for violating citizens’ privacy


ALEX LARSON FREEMAN | Daily Evergreen File

Kim Houser, a WSU accounting professor, claims that the IRS has been violating U.S. laws that restrict their access to private information belonging to citizens.

RIDGE PETERSON, Evergreen columnist

Imagine if the tax man, in addition to collecting government revenue from you every year, also spied on you, wrote down everything that you did and used your information to make predictions about you. What if the tax man even paid some of his friends do to the same, only they could go even further since they weren’t government employees? Would you be okay with this?

This isn’t some Orwellian fantasy — this is reality. Only instead of a stalker with a pair of binoculars peeping through your window, the real threat to your privacy is online. Kim Houser, a WSU accounting professor, said she was researching the ways that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) gathers citizens’ information for tax collection, when she saw what she believed were blatant violations of federal law regarding privacy.

These laws include the Privacy Act of 1974, which was passed to protect citizens from machines potentially making decisions that violate their rights. Of course, there is one small problem with applying these laws to modern day.

“The problem is that technology has changed a lot since the ‘70s,” Houser said, “but they haven’t really amended the laws very much.”

It is a bit difficult to interpret laws written in the era of the first Mac computer and apply them to modern day Americans in the world of the internet and social media. But the spirit of the laws is still there, and Houser said the IRS is blatantly violating it.

Not to worry, however. The IRS probably doesn’t need to be held accountable for their actions. Although Houser said we don’t currently have any dedicated oversight agency for them whatsoever, surely somebody will protect our privacy, right?

For a person to ensure protection of their privacy, it would take no less than completely avoiding the little novelty we call the World Wide Web.

Even the slightest thing you do on the internet can be tracked or recorded by “data brokers,” whose job it is to compile all these seemingly irrelevant data bytes into an algorithm for predicting future behavior.

Data brokers are private individuals or entities who work as intermediaries to take advantage of loopholes that regulate what information the federal government can collect. There is much less U.S. regulation on what private citizens or corporations can use to gather data, and these data brokers can sell their knowledge to the government or others, which isn’t shady at all.

Social media is one way that data brokers can gather information, but they can also use other metrics, such as shopping habits, search history, or a person’s insurance or health history. So if you think your Google search history is an accurate representation of your interests, there should be no problem.

“The problem with the internet, and social media,” Houser said, “is we can’t control what people put out there about us.”

If you are okay with private individuals, corporations and government bureaucracy collecting data on your online habits, then it’s probably best to keep quiet about what the IRS and others are doing. Imposing stronger regulations and accountability to safeguard privacy against data mining would only benefit those who don’t want the government knowing their personal information, those who don’t want to be discriminated against and the radicals who feel uncomfortable about the thought of said personal information getting leaked.

Of course, my comments here are satirical, but the issue at hand is a serious matter concerning the violation of citizen’s right to privacy. The IRS clearly crossed a line, and we, as Americans, need to protect our privacy by holding the bureaucracy responsible.