I.R.S. Eager to Tap Orwellian Data Warehouses

You know how the government’s Knowledge Gathering Bureau is trying to pull all of the world’s databases, public and private, into one giant überdatabase — in order to protect our children from evil madmen who hate freedom?

That way they can use computers to pull together all sorts of information about all of us — each bit possibly innocent in and of itself, but in the aggregate perhaps fitting the profile of a terrorist. Like this family — whose high electricity use and habit of waiting until the last minute to put the garbage out on the curb marked them as likely marijuana farmers.

They weren’t. And they’re a little upset at the police raid. “I understand they feel something isn’t appropriate here,” said Carlsbad Police Lieutenant Bill Rowland, “but it is very much consistent with how search warrants are prepared.”

The Smoking Gun has the complete affidavit for search warrant that the judge approved.

In the future, the police won’t have to rely on such vague data points as electricity use and trash collection patterns — they’ll have your TiVo viewing patterns and Safeway Club Card receipts to help them figure out just what sort of terrorist you might be in danger of becoming.

And the IRS is enthusiastic about these new advances in information technology. They’re eager to share their data with other law enforcement agencies — and they want fresh sets of data for their automated investigations too:

“It’s the new trend. It’s where everybody is headed,” said Verenda Smith, government affairs associate at the Federation of Tax Administrators, which represents state tax agencies. “The greatest value of these systems is in finding patterns that the human eye isn’t that good at seeing.”

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 has also 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…

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.

The Federation of Tax Administrators doesn’t keep a definitive list of states using the technology, but Massachusetts, Texas, California, Washington, Virginia, Iowa and Florida are known to be leaders in the trend, which began in . The IRS is also using the techniques.…

The tax agencies’ “data warehouses” can stockpile data from state and federal agencies and, in some cases, private sources. And they are using new tools to analyze the data, including “data-mining” software that can scrutinize mountains of information to find patterns or establish relationships.…

LeBovidge now unabashedly dreams of a day when people won’t even have to fill out their income tax forms: The government will have so much information about people’s finances that it can simply fill out tax forms and mail them to taxpayers to be endorsed.

California has taken a step in that direction, mailing 23,000 pre-filled-out forms to taxpayers who have simpler types of returns, a small fraction of the state’s 15 million business and private returns, said Denise Azimi, spokeswoman for the California Franchise Tax Board,

She said an upgrade to California’s “non-filer” system that began in offered the state an increased data warehousing and analysis capability. The system brings together multiple databases, including records from the IRS, state agencies, banks and brokerage houses to try to identify tax cheats.

Over at Living on Less they’re discussing the finding that “about half of Americans feel that they do not make enough money to afford the things they need. That includes 39% of people making between $50,000 and $100,000 a year.”

These are people making two to four times the median income in the United States — and making enough to put them in the crustiest of the upper crust world-wide. So where does their feeling of being on the edge of financial disaster come from?

Is it just some sort of pathology — like the way anorexics see their protruding hips and ribs as more fatty lumps in need of reduction? Or are the expensive demands of modern life really requiring more money than most people can earn?

One convincing argument blames mass media. Humans are wired, says the argument, to look around themselves for status symbols and compare their own with the social median to see how they’re doing. But today’s humans are comparing themselves not to their peers, but to a combination of their peers and the humans they see on television. People on television are disproportionally wealthy people with lots of leisure time who engage in expensive pastimes. They frequently purchase and own expensive things.

All of the advertisements on television are advertising different things, but it’s also true that most of them are advertising the same thing: that your life will be improved in some way if you buy something. More often than not, this is done by example: a brief vignette is shown, in which a purchased product brightens somebody’s day: The beer drinker gets the girl, the SUV driver smiles at her well-defended passenger child, the former dandruff sufferer fearlessly dons the black turtleneck.

If advertising works on a small scale — to sell a particular product — how must it work on a large scale? There is a shared message of advertisements: Something’s wrong with you, buy something to fix it, you’ll be glad you did. That message is repeated over and over, day in and day out. The products change, the selling stays the same.

So when someone who’s making $75,000 thinks that they’re just getting by, or wonders why the credit card bill never gets paid off, maybe this is why. Nobody can keep pace with the relentless purchasing of the media versions of people we’re using to evaluate our place in the scheme of things.

A small bit from a New Yorker article about Michael Moore from a couple of months ago (yes, I’m getting behind in my reading):

“The only thing we could do in any way to stop this happening is just to stop working,” a middle-aged man in the balcony suggested, talking about the war. “Then they’ll have no money to fund guns.”

This was, in fact, the logical extension of a point that Moore makes often, that American and British citizens are responsible for the war because it is being funded by taxes; but Moore seemed taken aback by such a radical notion. A general strike!