The total information monster

In the Fox News story 'Pentagon to Track American Consumer Purchases' it was reported the Pentagon said, 'A massive database that the government will use to monitor every purchase made by every American citizen is a necessary tool in the war on terror.'

          In the Fox News story "Pentagon to Track American Consumer Purchases" it was reported the Pentagon said, "A massive database that the government will use to monitor every purchase made by every American citizen is a necessary tool in the war on terror."

          The idea behind the government's proposed database is, according to Edward Aldridge, undersecretary of Acquisitions and Technology, to look for "patterns indicative of terrorist activity."

          Aldridge said the government would be looking for "sudden and large cash withdrawals, one-way air or rail travel, rental car transactions and purchases of firearms, chemicals or agents that could be used to produce biological or chemical weapons."

          Moreover, this database is to integrate that consumer data with visa and passport records, arrest records and reports of suspicious activity given to law enforcement or intelligence services.

          It is hard to say how big such a system would be. The storage certainly would be up in the petabyte region and the processing power required would be staggering even to handle basic cross-referencing, let alone pattern analysis.

          And who will be in charge of this behemoth? Well, President Reagan's former national security adviser, retired Rear Admiral John Poindexter, is developing the database under the Total Information Awareness (TIA) programme.

          Poindexter was a player in the Iran-Contra investigation. He was convicted in 1990 on five counts of lying to Congress, making false statements, destroying documents and obstructing inquiries.

          A November 12 story in The Washington Post noted that "[Poindexter] was sentenced to six months in jail by a federal judge who called him 'the decision-making head' of a scheme to deceive Congress. The US Court of Appeals overturned that conviction in 1991, saying Poindexter's rights had been violated through the use of testimony he had given to Congress after being granted immunity."

          Even though the convictions were overturned, wouldn't you think someone charged with developing the most-sensitive public data warehouse ever would need to have a spotless past?

          Apparently, Poindexter came up with this Dr Strangelove-type scheme and managed to sell it to Aldridge and the Pentagon. It is some relief that Poindexter will only be in charge of development and not deployment.

          According to Fox News, Aldridge said, "John has a real passion for this project." I'm sure he does. Can you say "megalomaniac"?

          The key issues are simple. First, can such a system be built? I would suggest that it can't. Sure, a data management framework can be put together, but think of the scale of this project: The problems of reliability and data hygiene are insurmountable.

          Secondly, the potential for abuse is enormous. If they succeed in building it, what would be considered an abuse of the database early in its life would, in time, become an acceptable use.

          Initially, the database would be used for what it was intended - to identify terrorists. Then the US Central Intelligence Agency and US Federal Bureau of Investigation would get access for other reasons, such as fighting organised crime. Then the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Immigration and Naturalization Service will wheedle in for "sound reasons." And before we know it the Forestry Commission and Bureau of Land Management will be feeding at the trough.

          Thankfully, some politicians are concerned TIA might be dangerous. Senator Dianne Feinstein (Democrat-California) told the San Jose Mercury News that she "plans to introduce legislation to ensure that TIA does not infringe on the privacy rights of Americans."

          I'm just afraid that if TIA gets off the ground, it will be on such a scale and get so much political backing that legislation such as Feinstein's will be ineffective in controlling Poindexter's monster.

          Worried folks gather at Gibbs.

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