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Tuesday, December 24, 2002

On the Dark Side of the Net

Recent efforts by the Pentagon and other US security agencies to put in place a system known as total information surveillance has brought to light one interesting detail: most of the technology needed to make this 'dream' a reality is already in place, and it is in place because we 'the people' have willingly embraced the technical prerequisites which lay the basis for such an all inclusive surveillance system. In other words we have, informationally speaking, dug our own graves. Thirty years ago you needed a whole army of spies and cloak-and-dagger security officers to keep track on what were relatively small groups of disaffected citizens. Today, using the same technology that makes possible Amazon-style peer referenced recommendations, it is a pretty simple task to discover who is interested in what.

My own feeling is the question of whether this is sinister or not depends on how we react to this new reality. Blackmail, for example, can never have been easier as you track all those 'unusual' sites that a wife/husband or boss might be interested in. Alternately, our openness about what we really find acceptable can change, and thus there is nothing to blackmail about. Fifty years ago one of the most gifted mathematical minds of the twentieth century - Alan Turing - was driven to suicide by the criminalisation of his homosexuality. Today an adolescent in the US can take his school director to court to assert his right to take his gay partner to the annual prom dance. Or again, the Nazi bureaucratic machine collected one of the most systematic archives of detailed information of the pre-computer era. But when it came down to the massacreing of millions of innocent people all this information played no important role whatsoever, recourse to an item on a dingy card file was no protection from or source of incrimination. The Nazis with their crude and brutal objective had no use for such a honed down apparatus, they needed a much blunter instrument. Result: these archives have only served as an incredible source of detailed information for those historians who would try and understand how the Nazi society actually functioned.

One final point. The danger of seeing all this sophistocated gadgetry as a protection against terrorism is that you commit an error of principle. It's like trying to play chess under the assumption that you opponent has a null strategy. Obviously the technology balance between government and terrorism is not a symmetric one. Terrorists work in the shadows, this means that they are far more likely to adopt strategies which are relatively low-tech, and when they do resort to more high-tech activities to do so in a way which makes their activity hard to locate in the mass of oterwise innocuous fata collected. At the same time, our societies, based as they are on an enormous digital divide will continue to include huge masses of social space where face to face contact is the primary one, and about which hardly a minimal information trace will ever exist. Here lies the main trap and the main danger for the system of total information surveillance.

Because of the inroads the Internet and other digital network technologies have made into everyday life over the last decade, it is increasingly possible to amass Big Brother-like surveillance powers through Little Brother means. The basic components include everyday digital technologies like e-mail, online shopping and travel booking, A.T.M. systems, cellphone networks, electronic toll-collection systems and credit-card payment terminals. In essence, the Pentagon's main job would be to spin strands of software technology that would weave these sources of data into a vast electronic dragnet. Technologists say the types of computerized data sifting and pattern matching that might flag suspicious activities to government agencies and coordinate their surveillance are not much different from programs already in use by private companies. Such programs spot unusual credit card activity, for example, or let people at multiple locations collaborate on a project.

The civilian population, in other words, has willingly embraced the technical prerequisites for a national surveillance system that Pentagon planners are calling Total Information Awareness. The development has a certain historical resonance because it was the Pentagon's research agency that in the 1960's financed the technology that led directly to the modern Internet. Now the same agency — the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or Darpa — is relying on commercial technology that has evolved from the network it pioneered.The first generation of the Internet — called the Arpanet — consisted of electronic mail and file transfer software that connected people to people. The second generation connected people to databases and other information via the World Wide Web. Now a new generation of software connects computers directly to computers. And that is the key to the Total Information Awareness project, which is overseen by John M. Poindexter, the former national security adviser under President Ronald Reagan. Dr. Poindexter was convicted in 1990 of a felony for his role in the Iran-contra affair, but that conviction was overturned by a federal appeals court because he had been granted immunity for his testimony before Congress about the case.
Source: New York Times

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