"We're just as concerned as the next person with protecting
privacy," John Poindexter recently told The Washington Post. Maybe, if the
next person happens to be J. Edgar Hoover.
Poindexter, a former national security adviser, now heads the
Information Awareness Office (IAO), a new division of the Pentagon's Defense
Advanced Research Projects Agency. This obscure little office with a blandly
creepy name has a grand mission: Total Information Awareness -- in a word,
"The goal of the Total Information Awareness (TIA) program," the
IAO's Web site explains, "is to revolutionize the ability of the United
States to detect, classify and identify foreign terrorists -- and decipher
their plans -- and thereby enable the U.S. to take timely action to
successfully preempt and defeat terrorist acts." Accordingly, the IAO is
developing hardware and software to look for suspicious patterns in vast
collections of information, including travel itineraries, credit card
purchases, bank accounts, e-mail messages, Web site visits and medical
That's where you come in. You're probably not a terrorist, but
the government can't be sure until it puts your information in a huge,
centralized database, where Poindexter's computers can sniff it over. You
haven't visited any terrorist havens, purchased books about weapons, read
subversive online propaganda or undergone plastic surgery lately, have you?
No need to answer -- the government will know soon enough if
Poindexter's vision is realized. As he put it in a speech he gave this year,
"We must become much more efficient and more clever in the ways we find new
sources of data, mine information from the new and old, generate
information, make it available for analysis, convert it to knowledge, and
create actionable options."
Given the amount of data Poindexter wants to collect, the
government would be not just mining but strip mining, scooping up huge piles
of information in the hope of finding a useful nugget. "By definition,
they're going to send highly sensitive, personal data," noted a computer
scientist interviewed by the Post. "How many innocent people are going to
get falsely pinged? How many terrorists are going to slip through?"
Former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart, a member of the U.S. Commission
on National Security, said Poindexter's project, which has a $200 million
annual budget, could be "a huge waste of money." He said it represented
"total overkill of intelligence," based on "an Orwellian concept." Repeat
after me: Total Awareness Is Total Security.
There are some obstacles to Poindexter's know-it-all plan.
Several statutes, including the Privacy Act of 1974, the Right to Financial
Privacy Act, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act and the Fair Credit
Reporting Act, limit the government's authority to collect and share
Legislation establishing a Department of Homeland Security,
which Congress is expected to pass soon, could loosen some of those
restrictions. The language dealing with information collection in the
original bill alarmed privacy advocates in the House, who added several
reassuring provisions that may or may not be in the final bill.
Legal barriers aside, Americans can be awfully touchy about
their privacy. They don't like the idea that so many details of their
lives -- the places they go, the things they buy, the magazines they read,
the e-mail they send, the medicine they take -- could be available for the
government to peruse at will.
"We can develop the best technology in the world," Poindexter
told the Post, "and unless there is public acceptance and understanding of
the necessity, it will never be implemented." This is the perennial
complaint of the technocrat, impatient with a public that fails to
appreciate the brilliance of his plan. Why can't people learn to stop
worrying and trust the experts?
Granted, Poindexter's last big scheme, which involved raising
money for Nicaraguan rebels by selling weapons to Iran, did not work out so
well. In 1990 the former Navy admiral was sentenced to six months in jail
for trying to cover up the deal by lying to Congress, destroying documents
and otherwise interfering with a congressional investigation. An appeals
court overturned the conviction after concluding that it was based on
congressional testimony for which Poindexter had been granted immunity.
Maybe Poindexter has learned that sneakiness has its price. So
far his office has been admirably up-front about its intentions. The IAO's
ominous emblem features an eyeball scanning the globe from atop a pyramid.
Below it is the motto "Scientia Est Potentia": "Knowledge Is Power." Hoover
couldn't have put it better.