Info-gathering in the open

Columnist Jonah Goldberg wrote last week in USA Today that civil libertarians are hypocrites when it comes to the NSA controversy on the one hand and the Affordable Health Care Act on the other. Specifically he says,

Farhad Manjoo of online Slate magazine agrees. The "fundamental problem" with the NSA's surveillance program is that it's amassing an all-too-tempting stockpile of information. "Someone has access to that data, and that someone might not be as noble as (Edward) Snowden. He could post everything online. He could sell it to identity thieves. He could blackmail you. Or he might blackmail politicians, businesspeople, judges, TSA agents, or use the data in some other nefarious way."
One needn't be a privacy absolutist, never mind a paranoid conspiracy theorist, to believe that this is a legitimate concern. One can even support the NSA's PRISM program and still want significant safeguards against abuse.
What I have a hard time understanding, however, is how one can get worked up into a near panic about an overreaching national security apparatus while also celebrating other government expansions into our lives, chief among them the hydrahead leviathan of the Affordable Care Act (aka ObamaCare). The 2009 stimulus created a health database that will store all your health records. The Federal Data Services Hub will record everything bureaucrats deem useful, from your incarceration record and immigration status to whether or not you had an abortion or were treated for depression or erectile dysfunction.
Now, I can't speak for civil libertarians (or liberals, or conservatives, or even independents), but I can speak for some in the open government and access communities to point out one reason why someone in my position may be more concerned about the former than the latter.
Both programs are collecting massive amounts of personal information. Access advocates have long urged government to not collect so much information on individuals. At the state level we frequently repeat that mantra when a government agency has started some program and found that they have a lot of sensitive information on their hands and now they want a FOIA exemption. If the information wasn't essential to what the government was doing, it shouldn't have been collected in the first place.
But, here's the difference as I see it between the NSA situation and the ACA: We know going into it that the government is collecting all of that information under the ACA.  Most Americans did NOT know the government was amassing troves of data about our personal communication habits. This was done in secret, and though I would also argue most Americans should have been aware of at least the likelihood that this was happening, it nonetheless took a whistleblower to reveal the extent of the government's information gathering.
It may have been absolutely necessary to keep the fact of the NSA actions secret from the public. There are frequently very good reasons for secrecy. That doesn't make the sting of finding out you've been kept in the dark any easier to swallow. Knowing ahead of time that the information is going to be collected lets us know from the beginning what will be in the government's possession and will allow us to set -- or at least urge -- parameters on how the information can be handled. We didn't get to have that discussion in the NSA case and now we're arguing not only about the necessity of the NSA's information gathering but about the fact that we, the public, were not informed that this was happening.
So, I'm not here to defend the NSA or Obamacare on the merits, nor am I here to defend Edward Snowden. I'm here to say that as bad as over-collection of information by the government is in general, it's far worse when it's done in secret. And that's why the difference in reactions that Mr. Goldberg decries does not ring of hypocricy to me.

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