Total Information, Total Confusion

By Cockburn, Alexander | The Nation, December 16, 2002 | Go to article overview
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Total Information, Total Confusion


Cockburn, Alexander, The Nation


So let's join Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Logistics, and Technology Edward "Pete" Aldridge at a recent Pentagon press briefing, where he's addressing concerns about the Pentagon's bold new plan to have Adm. John Poindexter personally review exactly what you bought in Safeway last week and all the dirty movies you ordered up in Motel 6 last time you were on the road.

Aldridge: "We established a project within DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, that would develop an experimental prototype--underline, experimental prototype--which we call the Total Information Awareness System. The purpose of TIA would be to determine the feasibility of searching vast quantities of data to determine links and patterns indicative of terrorist activities."

Aldridge reels off the TIA research menu: rapid language translation, using computer voice-recognition techniques; discovery of connections between transactions (involving passports, visas, work permits, driver's licenses and credit cards, of such things as airline tickets, rental cars and gun and chemical purchases) and events (such as arrests or suspicious activities).

What about privacy? Aldridge is soothing: "We're designing this system to insure complete anonymity of uninvolved citizens, thus focusing the efforts of law enforcement officials on terrorist investigations."

This is too much for one reporter, who cries out, "How is this not domestic spying? I don't understand this. You have these vast databases that you're looking for patterns in. Ordinary Americans, who aren't of Middle East origin, are just typical, ordinary Americans, their transactions are going to be perused."

"It is a technology that we're developing," Aldridge mumbles. "We'll have to operate under the same legal conditions as we do today that protects individuals' privacy when this is operated by the law enforcement agency."

DARPA is limping along in the wake of reality. For most practical purposes, Total Information Awareness got here years ago. Police reports, criminal records, mortgage records, credit history, medical history, former employment, DMV data--either lawfully or with artifice, any competent private investigator can get the skinny on you. Wiretaps? My local lineman tells me that years ago the cops stopped even asking the phone company for an OK to monitor calls. Try buying a gun and see how many questions you have to answer.

I took a Gloucester canary to the Arcata Animal Hospital the other day to have a cyst gouged out of its wing, and was handed a form demanding not only such intimate details as whether I fed my birds green vegetables but also my Social Security number. Back in 1936 they said these numbers would be secret, and (so the late, great Murray Kempton used to recall) Republican presidential candidate Alf Landon, campaigning against Social Security, used to proclaim, "Mark my words, that number will follow you from cradle to grave." He was right about that one.

Not so long ago Susan Davis, professor of communications at the University of Illinois, described how at work one day she went to Amazon on her computer and ordered a used copy of Estelle Friedman and John D'Emilio's breakthrough book Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America.

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