Saturday, July 27, 2002

Privacy in the U.S.: Beyond the Tipping Point

I vividly remember calling Domino’s one night in law school. I ordered my regular pizza (it was the health special: bacon and sausage w/extra cheese), but forgot to give them my address before I hung up. Realizing that, I called back. “Oh don’t worry. We’ve got your address.” They’d implemented caller ID, and had my info in their computer. Understand that this was 1993, and caller ID was still relatively new to the market. Interestingly, they also had a list of my prior purchases. After that, I could just order “the usual”, and a circle of goodness would show up in a half hour or less.

The geek in me was impressed, but the burgeoning lawyer was a bit spooked by the possibilities for abuse. So started a thread on Cyberia (unfortunately, the archives only go back to 1997) about data capture, grocery store affinity cards, and the possibilities for abuse.

Well, turns out that those grocery lists can lead to some unfortunate results. Thanks to the Blog Hot or Not site (warning: it’s addictive), I found this post which links to a Village Voice article about Ashcroft’s Orwellian wishes. Isn’t that exactly what the government is looking for in TIPS? More or less. Fortunately, John “Little Brother” Ashcroft was on the Hill this week to assure the Senate that TIPS won’t create an “Orwellian” database. Here he is:

“We don’t want a new database, I’ve recommended that there be no database and I’ve been assured there won’t be one” created by the program, Ashcroft told the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Uh huh. This database-less setup is exactly what got the FBI in trouble – a lack of technology. I’m all for catching the criminals, but how exactly does the government plan on assimilating hundreds of thousands of tips from grocery store clerks around the country without using some database to power the thing? Post-its? Maybe they’ll do like the FBI does in the Sopranos – pictures on a cork board.

Yeah, that’ll do it.

Come on, John. Turns out that such a database was already in the works under Clinton – and could easily be resurrected. Check out this report from back in May by Josh Marshall. Turns out that the reasons behind Ashcroft’s lack of interest in a federal database may have less to do with principles and more to do with former lobbyists who are now higher-ups in the INS.

More interesting is the negative publicity TIPS is generating even among conservatives. Not known as a particularly liberal pub, Business Week this week blasted Ashcroft’s program:

But like many of Ashcroft’s salvos in the war on terrorism, Operation TIPS will more than likely reduce privacy without increasing security. Let’s be real: Terrorists with half a brain aren’t likely to be outsmarted by the mailman or open the door to have the gas meter read if they have bomb-making material nearby.

But ordinary people, who might be reading the Koran, will. The result could be a flood of unsubstantiated and largely irrelevant tips that overwhelm law-enforcement officials already mired in data. Worst of all, the program could sow the seeds of suspicion among loyal American citizens.

Perhaps most damning, notes Business Week, is that House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-TX) added language to the House version of the Homeland Security Bill on the 18th which would prevent the Justice Department from setting up Operation TIPS at all.

Bet let’s let Ashcroft’s words speak for themselves:

To those who pit Americans against immigrants, and citizens against non-citizens; to those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty; my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists – for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America’s enemies, and pause to America’s friends. They encourage people of good will to remain silent in the face of evil.

Am I the only one who sees the irony here?

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