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Total Poindexter Awareness: essential information

Americans bite back against the Panopticon

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John Gilmore has picked up a call to give the government's snoopers and window-peepers a taste of their own medicine. His suggestion is at the top of MIT's Blogdex today, so it looks like it's already gaining some traction.

To illustrate the potential loss of privacy SF Weekly columnist Matt Smith called Admiral John Poindexter at home, and helpfully provided us with his address and telephone number, in a piece published here. The disgraced Iran Contra felon - who was convicted of conspiracy, obstruction, and lying to Congress and escaped a custodial sentence on a technicality - has been given the job of creating the largest dragnet of personal information ever devised. DARPA will forage for details of every American's email, phone communications and financial transactions.

The extent of Total Information Awareness was disclosed by the New York Times last month. When reporter John Markoff rang the Homeland Defense department, they hadn't heard of the plan. That's because Poindexter's "Information Awareness Office" - with the unfortunate choice of an all-seeing eye in a pyramid as its logo - reports to the Department of Defense.

"The database envisioned is of an unprecedented scale," the Information Awareness Office itself notes in its description of TIA.

DARPA created the Internet, and recently tried to destroy it - as this humdinger of a follow-up by Markoff explains.

Smith promised to"publish anything that readers can convincingly claim to have obtained legally".

Gilmore agrees:-

" Employees at various businesses and organizations such as airlines, credit card authorizers, rental-car agencies, shops, gyms, schools, tollbooths, garbage services, banks, taxis, honest civil servants and police officers, and restaurants could demonstrate denial of service to such targeted people.

"A simple "We won't serve YOUR KIND OF PEOPLE" would do, as was practiced on black people for many decades. More subtle forms of denial of service are possible, such as "You've been 'randomly' selected as a security risk, I'll have to insist that [some degrading thing happen to you]". Or merely, "I can't seem to get this credit card to work, sir, and those twenties certainly look counterfeit to me."

" People who associated closely with such a targeted individual, such as their families, relatives, friends, neighbors, protective secret service agents, and business associates, might find themselves swept up in the information dragnet.

"Such a demonstration would graphically reveal the societal dangers of deploying such systems on a wide scale against a large number of citizens -- preferably early enough that such a deployment could be prevented, rather than reversed after major harm was caused."

In Gilmore's view, that the real menace is that such a Panopticon works on the principle of GIGO: garbage in, garbage out. False information could be used to harass innocent citizens.

But the Panopticon - a prison in which the observers are concealed - derives its power from the asymmetry of knowledge, as Foucalt described it. They know much more about you than you know about them.

Perhaps that's what DARPA means when it refers to "asymmetric" technology.®

Related Links

Gilmore: Eyeballing TIA
Matt Smith: Calling All Yahoos
DARPA: TIA

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