Total Information, Total Confusion

Total Information, Total Confusion

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


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.

You can guess what the Amazon server did next. It brought to Susan’s attention a long and most unchaste list of books about sex. But since she was writing a profile for CounterPunch of Gershon Legman, a folklorist who was also a sex researcher, she skimmed the lists to see if there was anything she could use. Up popped A Mind of Its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis, with enthusiastic academic as well as popular reviews.

Susan added A Mind of Its Own to her shopping cart, browsed some more, placed her order, picked up her papers and went home. Her husband met her at the door with an upset look on his face. “You’ve just had an urgent call from Capital One Visa. They want you to call back right away!”

In Susan’s ensuing conversation with Capital One, a young woman inquired whether she had just placed several orders with “a bookstore, for items totaling about $45.” Susan allowed as how she had. What was the problem? “I’ve done much bigger volume in a single day than that.” “Just a routine check,” said the woman. “Is it the content of what I bought?” Susan wondered aloud. “Or is it that a few months ago I reported my Visa card lost and had to get a new one?” Neither, she was reassured. “Just a routine check.”

We live in the world of the routine check. Vary your shopping or travel patterns, and the credit card company is programmed to start asking questions. A national ID card? We already carry one, known as the driver’s license. Somewhere I still have a Vermont license from the l970s. A bit of white pasteboard. No photo. I once offered it to an officer of the California Highway Patrol, who gazed at it bemusedly before throwing it on the ground with a shudder of revulsion. The cops have a battery of pretexts they use, so they can stop any driver anywhere and run a check. Ask any black person, of any income bracket, how many times they get checked driving across, say, Los Angeles.

Big Brother? Big Brother figured out drug laws in the 1980s, enthusiastically passed by a Democratic-controlled Congress, which laid the legal groundwork for imprisoning and disfranchising black people in vast numbers. When it comes to social control, DARPA has nothing to offer in its quest for total transparency except total confusion, which remains our last best hope.

And since I’m charged by another Nation columnist with the crime of advocating alliances with the populist right on certain issues, let me note that the best editorial on Poindexter’s DARPA project has been in the Washington Times, by its editor in chief, Wesley Pruden; also that the ACLU is retaining the services of two well-known right-wingers, Bob Barr and Dick Armey, as defenders of the Bill of Rights. I’ve been calling for coalitions on these sorts of issues for well over a decade, so it’s good to see the ACLU having the same idea.

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