net.wars: The Poindexter-industrial complex

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 15 November 2002

Sometimes I think they just hate us. By "them" I mean anyone governmental and by "us" I mean US - all of us.

Wendy M Grossman

You could sort of forgive the US the PATRIOT Act. Well, not really forgive it, but understand it as a natural, if ill-thought-out response to a sudden, horrible shock. The people you couldn't forgive, really, were the law enforcement officials who'd wanted those rights-abrogating policies all along and seized the legislative opportunity while people were still grieving, like the funeral directors in Jessica Mitford's classic The American Way of Death took advantage of the newly bereaved to sell them much more expensive funerals than they had in mind.

It will be a little harder to forgive if the Homeland Security Act passes unchanged. It has, after all, been more than a year since the attacks, and although clearly people are still grieving we're not in the first shock any more. The PATRIOT Act weakened a number of privacy and civil liberties protections. Now the Homeland Security Act wants to make things much, much worse. Law enforcement will be able to demand - and get - access to private communications without a court order if they can convince ISPs it's an emergency. In addition, the plan is to create every Orwell fan's nightmare, a centralized database of dossiers on all American citizens - Total Information Awareness, William Safire called it in the New York Times

Think how many sources of data they now have that they didn't when Orwell was writing - or even when Anthony Jay and Jonathan Lynn were writing Yes, Minister. Credit card trails, EZPass account records, and the information collected by all those CCTV surveillance cameras that have been put in place since September 11, 2001. Up until then, I think Americans thought the obsession with CCTV was one of those European oddities like having really high speed limits, or eating raw hamburger meat and calling it steak tartare.

Of course, there are also plenty of sources that did exist in Orwell's day. Passport applications, driver's license records, court records such as divorce papers and lawsuits, plus of course probably banking records and everything else. The Homeland Security Act actively encourages the private sector as well as state and local governments and individuals to share information with the Department of Homeland Security.

Safire puts the budget at $200 million for 300 million Americans. I make that 66 cents each. Now, you know that's really not a lot, especially given the tendency of large computer projects to go overbudget. So how much is private industry going to be kicking in? Just lots of data in return for lots more data? Or are we looking at a "public-private partnership" here? Is this Homeland Security (what an Orwellian name) or will filing divorce papers in your local county clerk's office get you a display of "starting over" books next time you visit Amazon.com?

It could be fun for Americans, couldn't it? to live in a country that presumes guilt instead of innocence? It could be ours - because I am American - in 30 days. Kind of gives a new meaning to Santa Claus's knowing whether we've been bad or good, doesn't it? Especially when Santa is the former Admiral John Poindexter, who was the Reagan National Security Adviser to Reagan that was heavily involved in the Iran-Contra dealings and is the director of the new Information Awareness Office.

The thing I'm wondering about - since I'm American but live overseas - is how this act will affect the rest of the world. The White House and Congress don't have to care about that, of course - damn furriners - but in this increasingly global market lots of non-US citizens shop at Amazon.com, use AOL, read email on Yahoo!, bid on eBay, or have accounts with Paypal.

What about our - because I'm also a dual citizen - records? Does buying something from a US-based ecommerce site mean you are now subject to US surveillance even though you've never even visited the country? It's an especially interesting point because European privacy laws are much more stringent than even the weak ones the US is trying to water down. Should there be protests outside US Embassies worldwide? (Which could then be photographed, with the photos going straight into the INS database, no doubt.) Have we seen Big Brother and he is Curious George? Should the Information Commissioner sue the US government?

Though of course what's going to happen is the US government is going to be the envy of all the other governments, who are going to want their comprehensive databases, too. Costs will mandate that the deals with commercial "partners" to share data will grow.

That phrase already worringly appears in the UK's proposals for the "entitlement card" - which of course is a national database with a fancy schmancy ID card on top of it. Yes, Minister is very important in all these battles. I just rewatched last night on DVD (on my hacked player) the episode in which a senior civil servant explains how to get politicians to back a proposal: "simple, quick, popular, cheap." And how to get them to drop one like a hot porcupine: "complicated, lengthy, expensive, and controversial." Or, even better, "courageous." ("Controversial loses you votes. Courageous loses you the election.")

All together now: complicated. Lengthy. Expensive. Courageous as hell. Is this thing on?

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).