TCS Daily

The Quiet Threats

By Sonia Arrison - January 9, 2003 12:00 AM

Editor's note: for a different perspective on the TIA debate, click here.

In an effort to better protect America's security, the federal government has proposed a number of schemes to keep track of everyone in the United States. While of concern, these proposals are unfortunately not the only or largest threats to individual liberty and privacy.

During recent months, there's been much controversy over the proposed Total Information Awareness (TIA) system headed up by John Poindexter's Information Awareness Office at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The goal of TIA is to break down barriers between private and government databases so that the government can more easily monitor individuals.

The TIA would gather information from multiple sources such as travel, credit card, medical, bank, and driver's license databases for the government to screen. It's a little unnerving that Admiral Poindexter, who was embroiled in the Iran-Contra scandal, is heading up the plans, but at least his presence and the scope of the scheme have ignited public attention. This has drawn an army of counter surveillance "netizens" and forced the government to hire a security team to attempt to make the system less vulnerable to abuse.

There are some good arguments against a TIA system: it would be expensive, ripe for abuse, and unlikely to help catch terrorists. Unfortunately, the government has shown that its problem isn't so much a lack of information but rather an inability to act on the information it gets.

For example, if the FBI had better coordinated with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and State Department, perhaps terrorist Mohamed Atta, known by the FBI to have met with Bin Laden operatives, wouldn't have been issued a visa. But there's another argument against TIA too, one that businesses in particular should consider.

Under the TIA program, it wouldn't make sense for consumers to shop around for their favorite privacy policy because all the data goes to the same source: the government. This monopoly over data collection would prevent privacy policies from being responsive and accountable, as they would be in a regular market environment. At that point, the only way left to protect privacy and select privacy preferences is through the blunt instrument of the law. This means greater regulation for businesses and its ensuing economic harm.

The proposed TIA system is, of course, not the government's only tech strategy to spy on Americans. There's been a whole host of other ideas such as the now-defunct scheme to tag email and web browsing with unique markers, otherwise known as eDNA, and plans currently in the works to allow unmanned aircraft to fly over the United States to watch everything that's going on below. But as menacing as these proposals sound, a larger problem is the slow and not-so-obvious expansion of government power that's happening under our noses.

For example, Oregon is considering a proposal to require all cars to have global positioning satellite (GPS) receivers so that the state government can calculate how much each person owes in road taxes based on how much they drive. This might be an accountant's dream, but it's a civil libertarian's nightmare.

Certainly, it would be efficient to charge users of the road for how much they drive, but this type of scheme also allows the government to track drivers' movements. And if the government gains the power to track vehicles to collect taxes, it wouldn't be long before they might be using it for all sorts of other purposes, such as impounding a car until a traffic ticket was paid, or at the worst, abuse of the system for political or personal reasons. And if Oregon followed San Francisco's lead, anonymous travel by taxi wouldn't be possible either. Starting this year, all San Francisco taxis must be outfitted with digital cameras mounted on the rearview mirror.

While schemes like the Total Information Awareness program sound frightening and are a threat to our basic liberties, there are other threats that are worse because they allow for a massive expansion of government power to be quietly implemented. It's time for citizens to pay close attention, remain vigilant, and speak out.

Sonia Arrison is director of the Center for Technology Studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute.

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