Letters

Readers revolt against Total Information Awareness.


Salon Staff
December 5, 2002 1:30AM (UTC)

[Read "Is Big Brother Our Only Hope Against bin Laden?]

"But despite these questions, the computer scientists also said they think of TIA as a long-term research project."

Isn't that what at least some of the scientists who participated in the Manhattan Project said at the time, only to repudiate the sentiment once the Nuclear Age was well underway?

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How could we protect privacy in perpetuity? Or permanently prevent a system like TIA from being used for draconian purposes? Imagine how much more efficient Hitler could have been if he had had access to such complete data. But I forget; such a thing could never happen here, so it doesn't matter if we put the perfect mechanism for it in place. It's not like there are, or ever could be, American religious fanatics or wannabe dictators who might find such information "useful" in ways for which it was never intended. Right?

-- Ellen Lingar

I am not willing to die so that civil libertarians can protect my freedoms. In case no one has noticed, we don't live in a world of theoretical arguments. Orwell, schmorwell. Why is the totalitarian, all-knowing state the only conclusion we can envision to tighter control over personal information? Freedom has a price, all right -- absolute freedom. Get over yourselves, already.

-- Mike Patrick

I wish to point out two flaws with your article on TIA. First, what makes you think the 2003 al-Qaida training manual doesn't already contain items to defeat TIA? Your story itself suggests various things that terrorists should do in the future to make themselves more invisible (e.g., use cash more often, and buy round-trip air tickets), and more items like this are just common sense. Once TIA-defeating techniques are used by terrorists, the only purpose of TIA will be to spy on Americans, and we know from the past (Nixon's "enemies" list, COINTELPRO, etc.) that the government is not reticent to do this. Pretty soon it will be antiwar protesters and environmentalists that are targeted with TIA information.

Second, you ask, "Do we have a choice?" and you ignore the obvious choice. The real anti-terrorism policy objective of the U.S. should be to stop interfering in so many other countries' affairs and thus generating the hatred in the first place. We should begin by eliminating our reliance on imported oil, which would coincidentally postpone the global warming problem a few centuries. This is not a technological pipe dream, but something that could be achieved by transitioning the U.S. auto/truck fleet to chargeable hybrid vehicles. A hybrid that could be charged in your garage and travel off its battery for merely 20 miles would cut automobile gasoline consumption in half. Once the vehicle reaches 20 miles, the gasoline engine turns on, but running at twice the mpg of a gasoline-only car. That's a total of a factor of four in efficiency, which is more than enough to eliminate imported oil.

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-- Earl Killian

Your article on Total Information Awareness suffered from one major flaw: It assumed that the purpose of the TIA system is, in fact, to catch terrorists. As a database management professional, I've never believed that such a system would be practical.

It could, however, be very effective at tracking the activity of the domestic political opposition. It probably wouldn't work for predicting terrorist attacks, but it would help to predict voting patterns. It could be a far more sophisticated system for the disenfranchisement of selected voters (à la the 2000 Florida election). And since it's all being done in secret, who'd know?

-- Jason Tilley

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One problem is that the stated purpose of laws ends up not being what they are used for a few years down the road. Laws soon drift into the realm of the fascist police state. Kicking the door open with some noble purpose is the important phase, because once it is open there will be no going back to the old days when the abuses start. That's why it's so important not to allow these big brother laws to pass in the first place.

Example: In Massachusetts, a law was passed requiring the wearing of seat belts. It was said at the time that this could not be a reason for police to pull a person over. Now, a few years later, the law was changed so that the police can pull you over for no other reason than not wearing a seat belt. Other example: The RICO law. This was originally intended to be used to confiscate the property of drug kingpins. Now it is used to confiscate the boat of an average working stiff who smoked a joint -- to raise money for the police department.

And on and on. Unless you are prepared to accept the worst abuses a system like this could ever bring down on the heads of the American people, you should be very against it. It will be abused in horrible ways, we can be sure of that. And, oh yes, terrorists will strike anyway if they choose to.

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-- T. Gagnon

The chances of Total Information Awareness ever achieving its goal are highly unlikely, unless you define the goal as giving the government an enormous resource to enforce its political agenda and further erode whatever protections Americans might have. Why should we listen to computer scientists, people who have their head in code all day and a fetish for technology, on what the appropriate political and social response to terrorism is?

It may seem callous, but far more people die every year from car accidents, cancer and a host of other maladies than terrorism. And I am far more concerned about statistics such that a young black male's No. 1 cause of death is being shot by another young black male. These are the issues that affect America every day, and I wonder if the Bush administration will ever use its political capital to create a positive change in America. Or if terrorism will become the next drug war, something never winnable that divides and destroys American lives.

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-- Mike Andrew

What seems to be inherent in this article is that if this law can save lives, it is a good law and should be implemented. I question this assumption. We could clearly reduce the number of highway fatalities in this country by making the national speed limit 20 mph. We could reduce drunk driving in this country by allowing police to jail any suspected drunk driver for 10 years without a trial. We don't enact these laws -- not because we don't care about highway fatalities or drunk driving, but because we understand that personal freedom and civil rights are vitally important to us as well.

I don't believe that our government's plan to combat terrorism by allowing unfettered access to our personal information will be effective at all. But even if it was proved to be effective in slowing terrorism, the costs to our society and our way of life are too great. I would rather take the chance of the occasional terrorist threat than live my life in a totalitarian society. After all, even in 2001, more Americans died of choking than in terrorist attacks. Is it worth the loss of your civil rights to guard against the long-shot odds of becoming a terror victim?

-- Kimio Steinberg

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Obviously, given the very grave circumstances our country faces, we can't afford to trust ourselves on any level. Data mining and the like is clearly not enough.

Let's cut to the chase and institute a foolproof, and much simpler, system: Let's kill everyone the minute they are born; that way they will never posses the capability to do anything wrong.

The idea that we can make this world safe by eradicating our civil rights is predicated upon fear. Perhaps the problem in this country is not terrorism, but an absolute and complete lack of courage on the part of our scientists and citizens.

Many brave people, over the history of this country, have bled and died for the rights that the cowards and corporate errand boys, in the current administration, would so freely give away.

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Freedom in a democracy requires citizens to exercise courage and responsibility. Maybe we, as a country, should stop looking to computers and start looking at ourselves.

-- Michael Kearns

Why do techno-geeks dominate articles where they have no business? Why did an article arguing that total governmental monitoring and studying of all citizens was necessary to save civilization get the front page, on Salon of all places?

Why weren't constitutional protections from unreasonable searches not mentioned? What about any details on Poindexter's checkered past? Why should readers assume that experts on computer science are at all qualified to judge the societal implications of something this far reaching and monstrous?

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This is the most shoddy and irresponsible journalism I have ever encountered on Salon.

-- James Miller

Welcome to the "New World Order." We should all raise serious questions concerning both the breadth and the speed with which the Office of Homeland Security and in particular, Adm. Poindexter's Total Information Awareness program have become part of our government. No one denies that we are in a war with a treacherous and committed foe. No one denies that we must act quickly and decisively. No one denies that this issue of international terrorism is one of the most important issues confronting our nation. However, the staggeringly pernicious potential for misuse and enlargement of these fundamentally intrusive programs gives this particular "recovering Republican" serious pause.

It is astonishing to me that a Republican administration, an administration of the party that historically espoused a limit to federal reach, would be the one to steer us onto the potentially dangerous road we appear to be on. Perhaps these Draconian measures will help us to find and thwart the current crop of terrorists as well as those who are sure to follow in the inexorable march toward a global society. If so, perhaps, just perhaps, it may be worth it. However, the dark potential of this "Big Brother Is Watching You" come to life is something that requires far more serious public examination than it is being accorded. Good men and woman in government may not misuse these enlarged powers but governments have a long history of transgressing the line between good and bad. I remember the frequent comments about the events of 9/11 as being "like a movie." These thoughts haunt me today as I ponder Adm. Poindexter's "Scientia Est Potentia."

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-- Dirk W. Sabin

I'm surprised at the illogic and naiveté of your article on the Pentagon's Total Information Awareness program.

As anyone who has been paying attention realizes, governments from local to national were put on notice of a grave and continuous terrorist threat to the World Trade Center (at minimum) in 1993 when the first attempt to destroy it was made.

By the spring of 2001 there were many people in the federal government (FBI agents, U.S. senators and others) who knew something very drastic was imminent. However, the Bush administration wasn't interested in focusing on this grave danger because at that point they were more interested in promoting a useless but pork-barrel bonanza "Star Wars"-type defense.

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Then there's the little matter of the Fourth Amendment. The TIA mandate is a blatant official trashing of our constitutional rights. If our democracy is being destroyed by our own government, what exactly are they defending?

I would hope that a groundswell of protest, across the political spectrum, will prevent this abomination from destroying what the United States of America stands for.

-- M. Fischer

The illusion of total control strikes again. But terrorism is not going to be eradicated by adding systems. It will mutate around the obstacles. That which insidiously feeds on structure is pervasive and essential in nature. Besides, monitoring and interpreting the actions of every person on the planet? Perhaps a shadow society of genetically engineered clones could do the administrative work on that one.

-- Mark Tatara

Come on, folks. These computer scientists are drooling over the prospect of fat government R&D contracts for these super spy-on-citizens systems. They're gonna be riding the gravy train for the rest of their lives. Of course they tell us it is the only way to stop terrorism. That doesn't make it true.

Let's remember that old-fashioned police procedures gave us enough information and warning to do something about the 9/11/2001 attacks. It was a political failure, not a failure of intelligence gathering, that led to the horrendous events of that day. I SPY riding your credit cards is not necessary to assure our security.

-- Jim Senter

Why would you have Farhad Manjoo, a staff writer for Salon Technology & Business, write a political article about TIA? That would be like having a fashion designer write about the stock market. Of course TIA is every techie's dream. But it's every citizen's nightmare. What is going on with you guys at Salon?

-- Kevin Q. Harvey

The people in power are going to do what they wish, and it really doesn't matter what the citizens think. Do you think your vote counts in the long run? If you do, you're a fool.

It's become quite apparent what direction the United States government is going in and it's also easy to see how weak-willed the American people are when faced with seeing a couple of large explosions. The next Hitler isn't hiding in caves or living in Iraq, he's lurking in our government.

We're seeing the slippery slope in action, it's no longer just a phrase used in arguments and philosophical disagreements. It's happening right now. The American people will not revolt. A president was appointed by a court ruled by his own party, and we didn't revolt. It became OK to detain noncitizens for undetermined periods, and we didn't revolt. The Patriot Act was passed, and we didn't revolt. Now, and it will happen, Americans start trudging down the slow road to having every part of their lives tracked and monitored? Next? The government will forgo search warrants, so they can arrest "terrorists" quicker. And there we have it. The clichéd vision of men in black breaking into houses and taking people away, never to be seen again.

Germany had warning. So do we. It always seems inconceivable until it's too late, but try and realize: The U.S. government has become 100 percent corrupt and our representatives are too busy cashing checks and worrying about looking anti-Bush to protect us. It's a joke.

Get out now. Get out. Find a way. It's time to jump off the sinking, corrupt ship that is America.

-- Jeffrey Turner

How can you publish a four-page article about TIA and electronic surveillance without bringing up (at least once) Echelon and Carnivore? It's not like surveillance on electronic communications is new or isn't already quite ubiquitous. The real question to ask is, if the Atta et al.'s communications fell through the net of Echelon and Carnivore, how will a public institution like TIA avoid the same mistakes? If people do get caught via TIA, what's to stop terrorists from changing their tactics? Obviously it's possible to change tactics and avoid electronic surveillance; ask bin Laden about it if you can find him. The mistakes Atta made with regard to the credit card purchases/frequent flier numbers can easily be avoided.

If you're not sure what Echelon is, try typing it in a search engine. It's amazing that the Australian and New Zealand governments have basically confirmed its existence and the EU parliament has debated it, yet there is no coverage in the U.S. media. I believe even Congress had closed-door committees regarding it. Sometimes I think "information awareness" is a one-way door in this country. But I don't need to tell you that. Ask our kids.

So maybe TIA will streamline logistics and processes as the Office of Homeland Security is supposed to eventually do. However, I think it is a bit of a P.R. move also. Perhaps a modicum to get tacit public approval/acquiescence/apathy for surveillance programs that the public isn't aware of as they are reorganized under TIA. Or a way to get citizens to feel a vicarious patriotic buzz as part of the "War on Terror" while their credit card statements and e-mails are sifted and perused.

-- Tim Sanders

This system won't catch any terrorists. They may be evil, but they aren't dumb. If/when TIA is operational, the terrorists will simply use cash and thereby avoid any detection by TIA. Surely Bush, Ashcroft, Poindexter, et al. are aware of this. Which makes me wonder what they really intend to use TIA for.

-- John Consuegra

Thank you for the thoughtful article on Total Information Awareness. While it provided some valuable perspectives, it left totally unresolved the issue of data quality. Anyone who has worked with even small to medium-size databases (fewer than 100 million records) is aware of the fact that they contain a lot of garbage that continually requires cleanup. It is disturbing to think that errors in your credit history, entered into the database by the low-bid contractor, are going to be treated as real for the purposes of investigation.

-- John Lowe

The proponents of the Total Information Awareness system suggest that we are not safe because we don't have enough information to fight terror. But this country was not subjected to those awful attacks on Sept. 11 because of a lack of information. In fact, everything that we needed to know to stop Sept. 11 was already on file well before then.

The facts are as follows: The terrorists on those planes were already on a law enforcement watch list; their enrollment and subsequent suspicious behavior at various flight schools (learning to fly, not land) was reported to the proper authorities; at least one FBI agent was pressing for investigation into that behavior, so of course, she lost her job; and President Bush had a ready-to-go military solution to take out bin Laden handed to him from the Clinton administration, because even they knew that he was a real threat.

And we didn't do a thing.

Truly, the last thing in the world that would help us fight terror would be some Orwellian database detailing the medical records and grocery store purchases of 280 million innocent Americans simply going about their lives. Having all of that new (and invasive) information is in no way going to help us fight terror. If Sept. 11 proved anything, it proved that we don't even use what we already get now through the "proper" channels. TIA is not going to change that, and neither will the new Homeland "Security" Department.

No, TIA is just one in a series of outlandish and unconstitutional moves, perpetrated in the name of security after Sept. 11, that will eventually transform the United States into the Iraq of North America.

I can only hope that we get ourselves a kind, benevolent dictator. Like Henry Kissinger.

-- Christopher Dazey

If we're going toward TIA then we have to change the name of the country to something other than America. TIA is not anything close to something that would have been tolerated by the founders of the nation known as America. It would be a dishonor to the people who laid down their lives for the entity named America for us to continue to call our country by that name and allow the government to watch everyone, all the time.

-- Patricia Schwarz


Salon Staff

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