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Internet privacy and security: airstrip one, brave new world or what else?

By Peter Chen - posted Monday, 5 May 2003

Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.
- Benjamin Franklin

Unlike the easy copy that flows from tabloid media (of any form), the political attacks on the United States in 2001 did not mark some radical change in the alignment or nature of politics and the policy process. Some "new dawn" did not rise on 12 September 2001 and, for all the horror, pain, and suffering (inflicted and yet to be perpetrated), the world was not "changed forever". For all that death, the most significant thing to occur was the opening of a window.

The response to this world(view) shattering event, however, has been dramatic. In the United States, the USA PATRIOT Act was rushed through a Congress too shell-shocked to refer to their pocket-sized version of the Bill of Rights, heralding a massive expansion in the surveillance powers of law enforcement and intelligence services in that nation, and a peeling away of the checks and balances shown to be so critical in the days of King and Hoover, where organisations like the FBI showed their ability to support the status quo and suppress dissent.


Increased access to surveillance; roving wiretaps; the surveillance of citizens by foreign intelligence agencies; access to ISP logs by law enforcement - all featured in PATRIOT, with liberals in Congress increasingly frustrated by the lack of information from security agencies about how these powers have been employed, and conservatives looking to extend the lifespan of the legislation (from its original 2005 sunset). In Australia, the federal government toyed with its own version of PATRIOT (which has resurfaced now the War in Iraq has exposed the nation to greater risk of attack), while Victoria has foreshadowed legislation aimed at allowing "sneak and peek" covert-entry warrants. For Australia, this type of legislation reflects a lack of an indigenous Bill of Rights, for the United States, a lack of understanding - as Alanis Morissette has shown us - of what the word "ironic" actually means.

And this leads, in a round about way, to a discussion about technology.

It is interesting that for a man who wants to know a lot of things about people, Dr. John Poindexter's biography on the webpage of Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency failed to mention his more famous exploits in the Iran-Contra affair (that is before the page was removed completely). Regardless of his previously-demonstrated contempt for the rule of law and the role of Congress, however, the head of the Total Information Awareness project of DARPA may be just one of the most significant figures in the future of American democracy.

Total Information Awareness (TIA), for all its state-of-the-art jargon, isn't a new concept. TIA aims to develop a comprehensive (when they say total, they mean total) data mining and synthesis system, drawing information from a range of government databases, and using the inter-operability of online systems, to comprehensively search online information as well. Combined with advanced analysis techniques (read: profiling), Poindexters's team will use this information to make the world safe for democracy - as they see it.

Overall, strategies like TIA have been mooted ever since computerisation began to register on the public consciousness as a means of expediting the handling and processing of "routine" information. In 1970, Malcolm Warner and Michael Stone, a political scientist and a computer scientist, wrote in the Data Bank Society - an incredibly presentient book -that "Our freedom is threatened by the computer because its information-power demands that it be given more information, on the evidence of which conclusions may be drawn, plans made, directing us (corporately and singly)".

It is this information-power demand that makes the prospects of computerisation and total information awareness so attractive. As the Vice-Chairman of the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence - Senator Shelby - argued, systems like the TIA are vitally important to the role of intelligence agencies because they overcome the problem of "stovepipes" (hierarchical-only information flows) and "reservoirs" (disconnected information repositories). As the US intelligence community was quick to point out, it wasn't the incompetence of senior managers ignoring field officers reports about suspicious foreigners learning to fly planes and not land, but a lack of aggregated reports that failed to trip important intelligence alarm bells. Aggregated databases, therefore, are the only way to make America safe from the type of people it regularly irritates.

This is an old and hackneyed argument and runs counter to both the intent and sprit of pluralistic governments, and the logic of complex systems.


First, the TIA approach appeals to conservatives because of its inherent call to economy, that is, that with a wide number of competing agencies, there are inefficiencies due to duplication and redundancy. Perfect efficiency, therefore, becomes the objective of organization reshaping. Put the other way, however, perfect efficiency (total elimination of redundancy) means that should any single element in the system fail, the result is total failure of the whole. Think about just how precious efficiency is to you the next time your 747 bounces onto the tarmac and multiple redundant systems come into play to get you to the terminal, rather than the morgue.

Second, there's an inherent assumption that organizations involved in intelligence and law enforcement have only one objective and master - in the current political climate the elimination of "terrorists" and "terrorism" at the behest of the US President. This assumption is problematic - unless you assume that the US is run like Syria. When considering a federal system like the US (but also Australia, Canada, and now Europe), different law enforcement bodies (ranging from local, through state and federal) theoretically report to different masters with their own political agendas. Madison argued for division of power between multiple branches of government and different levels of the federation, not because he was interested in inefficiency, but because he feared the totalising power of a single sovereign. Democracy's costly, but Madison, Locke, and Montesquieu recognised the value proposition of complexity and countervailing centres of power in terms of personal liberty.

Third, regardless of the rule of law inherent in countries like the US, profiling and selective harassment of Arab-Americans and the use of mechanisms like military tribunals, demonstrate how democratic countries can be tyrannical in times of (real or perceived) crisis - the old problem of democracy, where the many are tyrants to the few. While technologies like the TIA are targeted at minority groups now, we have to remember what Milton Friedman said about nothing being as permanent as a temporary solution.

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About the Author

Dr Peter John Chen is a lecturer in politics and public policy at the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney.

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