Tracking Sales Data

Mark Byron discusses what it would take for the government to implement a nationwide purchase-tracking system. He calculates the approximate cost of such a system, using quite reasonable estimates, at $30 billion just to get it started.

I disagree with his figures. I don’t think the economic costs are nearly this high. Consequently, it’s a lot more likely to happen.

The bulk of the cost Mark estimates revolves around the need to issue and scan national identity cards to link together purchases. He reasonably estimates the cost of issuing such new cards, as well as the cost to businesses of installing the hardware necessary to use these cards. Such costs are astronomical.

The thing I think Mark misses is that we already have this kind of identification system in the form of our credit cards and checking accounts. Virtually all Americans have at least one credit card and/or checkbook. And virtually all businesses (especially the ones that sell the “interesting” purchases the government would want to track) are equipped to handle credit card transactions. It’s a conceptually straightforward effort to record purchases against the credit card number used – either at the point of sale, or at the credit card company’s end.

At that point, all you need is a fairly large chunk of hardware running a good database (didn’t Larry Ellison offer to donate enough Oracle instances for something like this?) and some straightforward code. This is very much like an operational data store, which is a pretty well developed science. We already know how to design or model these data stores, and how to mine the data in them. The only hard part is how to populate it, and that’s not really too tough if you use the existing credit card infrastructure.

It doesn’t get you Total Information Awareness, but it gets you close. The economic costs of such a system are far less than Mark estimated, but he nailed the civil liberty costs dead on. Unfortunately, I think the folks who make decisions will be more concerned about the economics than the liberties, and this system will be entirely viable and affordable.

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