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Forbes.com

 

Al Qaeda and the ACLU

August 11, 2003

By Peter W. Huber

With so much electronic data in everyone's hands, why bar the FBI from searching and cataloguing the public files that are being combed daily by the terrorists?

A government proposal to acquire "Total [or Terrorist] Information Awareness" does have an Orwellian ring to it, but today's reality is nothing like the one imagined in 1984. In the book, Big Brother owned all the computers and compiled all the databases, while ordinary citizens were vaporized if they kept paper diaries. In real life in 2003, corporations, ordinary citizens and al Qaeda agents collectively have access to far more electronic information than the FBI and other government agencies. This inversion of Orwellian reality places disproportionate power not in the hands of a totalitarian state but, rather, in the hands of its antithesis, the stateless anarchists.

Every month or two we read of another trove of files found on some terrorist's laptop showing detailed maps of potential targets or technical information relevant to the manufacture of dreadful weapons. Like it or not, once it gets out, such information can never be stuffed back into secret files. So--at the very least--we certainly shouldn't bar the FBI from searching and cataloguing the same public files that are being combed daily by the opposition.

The Defense Department plan would certainly go much further than that, of course. And within limits, the corporate owners of commercial, telecommunications and medical databases would willingly cooperate, if allowed to. They already cooperate electronically among themselves, after all, because most routine interactions these days are electronic, and because good citizenship and national security are more profitable than the alternatives.

Then there are the much-feared financial databases. They do indeed track our every economic move--that's how they give us all the power to buy goods (nitrate fertilizer and diesel fuel, say) and services (rental trucks, say) from complete strangers, anywhere we like, on five minutes' notice. It is because the bank and credit card companies know so much, that sellers everywhere can get away with knowing so little.

As currently operated, the financial networks don't spawn "total information," they spawn instant, ubiquitous economic anonymity. A 9-year-old can sign up for preapproved plastic in the name of Osama or Saddam, because it makes more business sense for Visa to issue first and track down mistakes later than to try to screen out jokesters and deadbeats in advance. Much the same holds for the electronic ID tags that let us stroll through stores freely handling the expensive goods, or move briskly through toll gates on the highway, or book a plane ticket on the Web, print out a boarding pass at an electronic terminal at the airport and--truth be told--glide fairly painlessly through the now essential layers of screening.

Absent such screening, however, the financial networks themselves become instruments of terror, just as surely as the jumbo jets topped off with enough kerosene to bring down a skyscraper. U.S. carriers board almost 700 million passengers onto U.S. aircraft every year. The numbers can be that big only because the wired databases are so fast, efficient and indiscriminate. The private databases, in short, place vast, fluid, anonymous crowds within easy reach of the profusion of powerful or potent goods and services that prosperity and technology combine to create. We are able to deal quickly, conveniently and all but anonymously with huge numbers of strangers every day, because private databases behind the scenes give us instant clearance. Us, and terrorists, too.

It is from this starting point that one must weigh the heatedly debated proposals for the government to comb many of these same databases in search of patterns of conduct that foreshadow a terrorist attack. The combing has to be very smart and selective, or it will be altogether useless. And when suspicious patterns of activity are occasionally spotted, the computers can only suggest a conventional investigation or screening, nothing more.

The only alternative is a huge increase in the much more conventional intrusions. When you head to the Supreme Court to listen to the American Civil Liberties Union argue the case against government computers, check your Fourth Amendment rights at the door while the guards wand your body and search your handbag. Expect comparable screening systems to multiply by the thousands if the evil ones ever manage to detonate a truck bomb under a Hudson River tunnel or release poison gas on a crowded subway platform in downtown Washington, D.C. What ought to scare civil libertarians most aren't the limited and easily circumscribed virtual intrusions on our civil liberties, but the far more offensive physical ones. You don't like taking off your shoes to get on an airplane? It could get a lot worse.

Original Source: http://www.forbes.com/free_forbes/2003/0811/072.html

 

 
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