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Totalitarian Information Awareness
By William Kanapaux

Using the technology that promised an information revolution, the federal government is pursuing unprecedented access to personal data—how scary is that?

We live in a digital world. EZPass scanners register our movements through toll booths, discount cards record our purchases at grocery stores and Internet providers keep track of our e-mails and Web browsing.

In little more than 10 years, we have become a society transformed by these leaps in technology. We’ve become accustomed to leaving a digital trail, bits and pieces of our daily lives recorded with the swipe of a card or the click of a mouse. And while we may experience a slight sense of unease—“Where does all this information go? Is it secure?”—we accept it as a benevolent trade-off for the sake of convenience.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, that trade-off has turned a bit more ominous. Under the guise of domestic security, officials within the Bush administration have begun the process of stripping away a significant portion of our Constitutional rights to gain broad powers for conducting electronic surveillance.

The justification for such action is that the United States has historically reigned in civil liberties during wartime for security reasons. But there is no historical precedent for what is now occurring.

While the public worries over the war in Iraq and the prospect of potential terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, forces within the Bush administration are busy at work on the home front. Their targets are our First Amendment right to free speech and our Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure, not to mention protections offered by the Fifth and Sixth amendments that could come in handy if one were ever arrested on the suspicion of actually being a terrorist.

First came the USA P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act of 2001, a bill that brought sweeping changes to the federal government’s investigative powers even as it eliminated checks and balances that would ensure that the executive branch did not abuse those powers.

The act—which derives its acronym from the ungodly sounding Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism—was pushed through Congress with little debate in the weeks following the 9/11 attacks, during an anthrax scare that put lawmakers into siege mode.

The act gave the federal government broad authority for conducting electronic surveillance and wiretaps. As long as the information is certified as likely to be relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation, it is fair game. Law-enforcement officials now can listen to telephone conversations, read e-mail, monitor Web activity and track public library usage, all without showing evidence that a crime has been committed or that the subject is even suspected of wrongdoing. The FBI need only claim that the information is necessary for an intelligence investigation. Judicial oversight of the process is limited at best, and the law prohibits libraries and Internet service providers from informing you that the feds have been rifling through your virtual file cabinets.

But it doesn’t stop there. In February, a leaked U.S. Justice Department document emerged that would greatly expand the power of the executive branch to conduct secret investigations. In the clamor that followed, the department denied that the Domestic Security Enhancement Act, known as P.A.T.R.I.O.T. II, was anything other than an early draft of possible proposals for filling gaps in P.A.T.R.I.O.T. I.

But those who saw the document say it looked like a finished product ready for delivery to the House floor.

A host of national organizations representing both left- and right-wing interests have objected to P.A.T.R.I.O.T. II. Many worry that the administration will introduce it in Congress following a terrorist attack or during a period of heightened alert, when fear and patriotic fervor are likely to prevail over reasoned debate.

The proposal’s critics say its passage would essentially create a police state—a seemingly unthinkable possibility given this country’s legacy of Constitutional protections.

Technology would play a large role in the Justice Department’s plans. Passage of P.A.T.R.I.O.T. II would pave the way for the infamous Total Information Awareness (TIA) system to fully emerge as an unfettered data-gathering program. Federal agents would no longer need a court order to access consumer credit reports, an important building block for a storehouse of private data. As part of the Department of Defense, the TIA program would integrate existing databases that track the daily transactions of average Americans and then use data-mining models to look for patterns that might distinguish normal activity from terrorist activity.

But that would only be the capstone of a concerted effort by the Bush administration to harness the massive information- gathering potential of our digital world in the name of homeland security.

Why does it matter whether the government knows what books and videos you check out from the library? Or what Web sites you visit? Or even the content of your e-mails, which most likely are filled with the mundane details of your daily life? Why should it matter if you have nothing to hide?

If you’re clean, the thinking goes, then what do you have to worry about? After all, the purpose of these bills is to prevent terrorism. Nobody wants to relive the anguish of 9/11, and if there is a way to stop it, then that course of action should be taken.

But there are problems with that line of reasoning: For starters, the measures being pushed by the Justice Department threaten to dilute agents’ efforts in tracking down terrorists by overwhelming them with a flood of irrelevant data.

Ultimately, the question is not whether any one individual has something to hide but what we as a nation have to lose. In a cruel twist of irony, early predictions that the Internet would create a new age for democracy and freedom of speech have given way to a totalitarian impulse to marshal digital information into a giant database where personal data can be dissected and analyzed.

Without the most stringent of controls and oversight, such a system would give absolute power to those who ran it. Political foes would be at a distinct disadvantage. Those who championed political positions and ideologies at odds with the party in power could be silenced simply by the threat of having their personal data scrutinized and used against them.

Free speech would be become a token phrase. Little of our daily lives would escape the notice of the vast database and the Defense Department’s best and brightest programming minds as they embarked upon the creation of massively powerful search engines.

That a government would try to create the mother of all databases seems almost inevitable in a world where gigabyte is a household term. But there is no reason to accept as inevitable that technology will be used to erode our Constitutional rights.

As it stands, the executive branch can pluck personal data from the electronic stream with relative ease and a minimum of oversight. As long as the FBI or other law enforcement agencies say the magic words, “terrorism investigation,” they can cast as wide a net as they like.

Consequently, we have reached a point where technology threatens the very foundation of our democracy. It is our responsibility to make sure that the necessary checks and balances from the judicial and legislative branches of government remain in place in order to keep that from happening.

For more information, visit the Electronic Privacy Information Center at www.epic.org. Click on “Patriot Act I & II” under Hot Topics.


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