Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Little Brothers
First there was Total Information Awareness, the massive database linking project headed up by Iran-Contra figure John Poindexter, the funding for which was spiked by Congress long before the project was much more than a dream on a drawing board. Then there was CAPPS II, a controversial airline passenger screening system that would have assigned a threat level to everybody who bought an airline ticket--a level you would have no right to know until it interfered with your travel plans, and then you'd have no way to find out why you'd been assigned that level and no way to change it. Last week, very quietly, CAPPS II was 86ed by the Department of Homeland Security. Outrage from privacy-minded citizens' groups helped, but technical considerations were a big part of the decision, too.

It's important to note that damn few people in a position to get these projects rolling think they're wrong. Their major objection is only that they're presently unworkable. They're unworkable at the moment because they are intended to operate by knitting together information from hundreds of existing databases, from banks, credit card companies, travel agents, libraries, insurance companies, and so forth. The technological obstacle is finding a way to merge this vast amount of information, store it, sort it, and report it in a timely fashion that's useful to the watchers--but given our history of technological innovation, the technological obstacle will be surmounted someday, leaving only civil libertarians to fight against it. The ACLU is out with a flash animation showing what life might be like in a society where all the various databases are linked together and made broadly available. It's kind of funny, but scary as hell, too, and it shows that we're not at risk of being watched by Big Brother as much as we are of being watched by dozens of Little Brothers. The risk that the ACLU's satire might become reality is great--and if you're a betting person, the way to bet is that it will come to pass one day, especially because so many Americans have shown that they're perfectly willing to give up chunks of their liberty in exchange for what they perceive to be safety.

One thing that is supposedly making us safer is the anti-terror provisions of the Patriot Act. Even in my much-missed former home, Iowa, land of more hogs than people, police and prosecutors are rounding up evildoers thanks to the powers the Patriot Act has given them. But according to a story in last Sunday's Des Moines Register, many of those arrested under the terrorism provisions don't seem especially threatening--people stealing baby food and reselling it, or soliciting sham marriages to keep their convenience-store jobs. At the same time, more serious violations--like exporting night-vision goggles to Kuwait--are not classified as terrorism cases.

What's most offensive about this is the broader issue of using the Patriot Act as a dragnet to catch penny-ante violators whose primary crime is being of Middle Eastern descent. Given these prosecutions, for actions which sorta kinda coulda be linked to the type of people who might be terrorists, it would be a short leap to using those same provisions to catch "violators" whose primary offense is having bad ideas that sorta kinda coulda be linked to the type of people who might terrorists. (Wait for a second Bush term for that to start happening.)

Recommended Reading: Back to the subject of technological security protection for a second . . . almost two years ago, The Atlantic published a story about how "foolproof" electronic security systems aren't. If you missed it then, read it now.

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