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    A Times Editorial

    Really 'Big Brother'

    Given its potential to invade the privacy of everyone, the Total Information Awareness program should be shut down before it starts.

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published November 24, 2002

    Consider this an alarm bell. The Defense Department is embarking on a project so invasive of Americans' privacy that it will leave little to the government's imagination. It is designing a domestic computer surveillance system that would give U.S. intelligence agents access to huge databases of personal information on every American, from credit card purchases to medical records. The idea is to scrutinize unrelated information and transactions in an effort to uncover terrorist activity before an attack occurs. But there is no proof that such a system will make us safer. We only know it will lay waste to our privacy.

    Vice Adm. John Poindexter has been put in charge of directing the "Total Information Awareness" program. Those who remember Poindexter may be wondering what in the world he is doing in a job of such responsibility. The former national security adviser in the Reagan administration was found guilty in 1990 of five felonies as a result of his role in the secret scheme to trade arms for hostages in the scandal known as Iran-Contra. But his verdict was overturned on appeal, and he now heads the Information Awareness Office within the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The system is envisioned to be a "large-scale counterterrorism database" that would include information from commercial and government computer files.

    Although he pays lip service to privacy concerns, Poindexter is trying to build a system that would have free rein over every person's Internet activity, banking transactions, travel arrangements, credit card purchases, medical conditions, employment history, real estate transactions, car purchases, telephone records and any other information contained in a computer database these days.

    That's everybody -- not just those suspected of criminal or terrorist activity. Poindexter wants to collect this information on people in America and overseas, and he's been given $200-million to do it.

    Believe it or not, there are no constitutional barriers to the program. While the Fourth Amendment protects us from police searches of our "papers" absent a warrant, that right has been interpreted to apply only to information in our personal possession. Our banking, medical, telephone and Internet records are held by the institutions that created them, which means law enforcement can access them with a subpoena or pen register. The USA Patriot Act made large databases of personal information available under a single subpoena for counterterrorism investigations.

    With the courts likely to take a pass, public opposition may be the only way to stop this train. Americans responded angrily to Attorney General John Ashcroft's proposed Terrorism Information and Prevention System, or TIPS program, which would have enlisted meter readers and letter carriers as government snoops. Thanks to the outcry, the Homeland Security Act bars the executive branch from implementing TIPS.

    The same heat should be generated to shut down the Total Information Awareness program before it starts. There is no reason to believe such indiscriminate data-mining would effectively identify terrorist activities. It is far more likely that innocent acts would be wrongly construed as suspicious.

    Permitting such intrusive access into the lives of citizens would give government too much power and far too much potential for abuse.

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