Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Getting It Right

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Getting It Right

Article excerpt

A NATION OF SUSPECTS

The Pentagon seeks to turn George Orwell's '1984' into real time

The New York Times' John Markoff was the first reporter to break the news, on Feb. 13, that retired Adm. John Poindexter, national security adviser to President Reagan, "has returned to the Pentagon to direct a new agency that is developing technologies to give federal officials instant access to vast new surveillance and information-analysis systems."

In the ensuing months, without public notice from the U.S. Defense Department or any congressional hearings, Poindexter has continued developing, as head of the Information Awareness Office, the resources to actualize Orwell's prophecy in 1984 that "they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to."

On Nov. 9, Markoff followed up his original story in a Times piece that aroused parts of the rest of the press: "The Pentagon is constructing a computer system that could create a vast electronic dragnet, searching for personal information as part of the hunt for terrorists around the globe -- including the United States."

By mining commercial and government databases with increasingly formidable computers, the government -- as noted Nov. 14 on ABC's Nightline -- "is going to get a collection of information that would allow it to, essentially, reconstruct the movements of citizens." Ted Koppel added: "Since all of this information is gathered privately, is used privately, is assessed privately by officials in the government who are accountable to no one for this information, how do you know it's being used?"

This vast store of personal information could include bank and credit- card account data, bridge-toll records, e-mail messages, Internal Revenue Service and medical records, pay-per-view movie titles, travel reservations, and more.

Among the press reports and forebodings that followed Markoff's story last month, an editorial in The Washington Post pointed out that "instantly updatable ... computer dossiers on everyone really do cease to be science fiction. [And] if computers can learn to identify a person through a video camera, then constant surveillance of society becomes possible, too."

From 1984: "How often, or in what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time."

As news stories multiplied, readers were reminded that Poindexter, in charge of creating a nation of suspects, was convicted of lying to Congress and destroying documents in the Iran-Contra scandal's covert exchange of hostages for weapons, but was set free because he had been granted immunity for his testimony. …

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