No Way to Win an Argument

No Way to Win an Argument

If governments want to assure their citizens over the security of their privacy protections, while still harnessing all possible resources against terrorism, they really should avoid dreaming up scary names for blue sky projects.

So it seems remarkable, to say the very least, that with privacy fears frustrating the Pentagon's plans for a far-reaching database to combat terrorism, more than a dozen US states working on a similar project — backed by $US12 million in federal funds — should choose to call their project The Matrix.

Okay, okay, someone obviously thought it was really clever to call the pilot, proof-of-concept project the Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange so that they could run with the Matrix as an acronym. But with privacy groups and civil libertarians already up in arms about proposed efforts to increase and enhance the exchange of sensitive terrorism and other criminal activity information between local, state and federal agencies for fear that too many innocent victims might be swept up in the backwash, might somebody not have anticipated the likelihood that such a title would push paranoia to the extreme?

Isn’t calling such a potentially invasive program such a name just a tad insensitive? The Matrix the movie, after all, “brings a whole new meaning to the word 'paranoia',” in the words of one critic. Set in the not too distant future in an insipid, characterless city, the hero of the piece, young man named Neo (Keanu Reeves), who happens to be a software techie by day and a computer hacker by night, discovers the reality of the Matrix, a reality beyond reality that reveals that computers control everyone’s lives, and that people are all actually immobile and unconscious and kept pacified by being fed images of the virtual world that have been created by malevolent computer programs.

The MATRIX pilot project is about leveraging and integrating proven technologies to provide a new capability to assist law enforcement in identifying and analysing terrorist and other criminal activity, and appropriately disseminating it to law enforcement agencies nationwide in a secure, efficient, and timely manner.

But its critics are starting to wonder whether it isn’t just as malevolent as its cinematic namesake. Some of the most trenchant criticisms have come from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) which says the program threatens to revive Total Information Awareness, the program voted down by the US Congress in light of privacy concerns, as well as concerns about the potential for erroneous identifications of innocent persons as terrorists. TIA was then renamed Terrorist Information Awareness. Unfortunately for its proponents the name change didn’t help one iota — Congress then shut this one down too, for similar reasons.

But the ACLU’s Anita Ramasastry, an Associate Professor of Law at the University of Washington School of Law in Seattle and a Director of the Shidler Center for Law, Commerce & Technology, says the same data mining ideas that inspired TIA have appeared again in the guise of the Matrix, which is run by a private corporation -- Seisint of Boca Raton, Florida, just to make matters worse.

Ramasastry says the Matrix allows the virtually instantaneous search of dozens of records relating to ordinary Americans. Such searches could be done routinely and on a massive scale. No complainant must walk into the police department; no client must go to a private detective.

“With a keystroke, the government will be able to compile so much information about us that it could reconstruct our daily lives instantaneously,” she writes. “It won't need to send a detective to trail us, or put a video camera at our side, because data will be used to reconstruct our movements. Nor will it need to pick and choose suspects: Everyone will be a suspect, in effect.” She says the program potentially violates privacy rights, rights against self-incrimination and right to an attorney.

Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Guy M. Tunnell denies this, insisting in a letter to critics that the Matrix is investigator-driven, not automatic, and that it does not allow indiscriminate surveillance of one’s activities, nor does not “monitor” individuals.

He also insists inquiries will be driven by actual criminal investigations or by reason of following up on active criminal intelligence or domestic security threat information, and the use of MATRIX will be monitored to guard against inappropriate or unauthorized use.

But his critics are unlikely to be satisfied, and demands by the ACLU for the information sources on which the Matrix is drawing; who has access to the database; and how it is being used, and in time, the law suits, are likely to be persistent.

Given that the program is set to be so controversial, perhaps they ought to rename it something more innocuous. At least that way, opponents might find their levels of paranoia dropping, and the ensuing debate more about the issues than about people’s fears — justified or otherwise.

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