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Dangerous Imports

Dangerous Imports

As counterterrorism experts wrangle about whether Australia’s role in the war against Iraq has increased our exposure to terrorist attack, privacy advocates and database experts are casting an increasing jaundiced eye over US Government use of data mining techniques.

Data Surveillance, privacy and e-commerce expert and Xamax consultancy principal Roger Clarke says Australian privacy advocacy groups are growing increasingly concerned about Federal Government tendencies to import “stupid ideas” into Australia.

And describing the US Defense Department's Total Information Awareness (TIA) research project as the result of an “unholy alliance” of all US national security and law enforcement agencies, Clarke is warning against any attempts to adopt US ideas which will reduce the freedoms of the Australian people.

There has been fierce controversy in the US over the proposed technological measures to protect the US from terrorism and the dangers those measures pose to privacy, with both Republican and Democratic legislators — not to mentioned quite a few computer analysts — speaking out against it on privacy and security grounds. On February 20, as part of a large spending bill for the federal government, Congress approved additional scrutiny of research and development on the TIA project.

Yet the project seems to be screaming ahead, with the US Defense Department reportedly having already awarded millions of dollars to more than two-dozen research projects aimed at the data-mining plans to compile electronic dossiers on all Americans.

The Total Information Awareness program intends to trawl vast quantities of personal data from a huge variety of sources of information, including commercial databases of medical, financial, and employment records, and to establish the electronic means to cross-check, filter, and file the exhumed data.

The scope is so breathtaking that George Washington University law professor Jeffrey Rosen has warned: "The complete transparency of information — which many Silicon Valley executives are arguing for — would not be consistent with the Fourth Amendment."

Democratic Senators Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and supporters have expressed concerns about the accuracy of data-mining efforts when information such as credit reports are often inaccurate. "Are we going to have accusation by computer?" asked Jim Dempsey, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology. "How do you get your name off the list? How do you tell the computer its information is wrong?"

But Clarke warns that whether the proposal can be considered technically feasible depends on your view of its true objectives.

“If their objectives were actually to achieve precise targeting (of possible terrorists), to nail down dangerous people, track them and ‘eliminate’ — in American terms — these people or at least their threat to society, then it will be a dismal failure,” Clarke says. “But that’s not their objective of course. Their objective is to be seen to be doing something and in the process to tighten their control over American society in general. Terrorism is an excuse. What will result from this will be enormous false positives, so there will be a great many people who are picked up in the dragnet who are not of the category which was the justification for the exercise in the first place.”

He says he sees worrying signs that the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and Attorney General are showing tendencies to adopt laws that reduce Australian freedoms.

“On the other hand I have said for donkey’s years that Australian law enforcement agencies and national security agencies are not as knee-jerk extremist right wing as the American ones are. So yes, there is a real risk that our security services and law enforcement agencies may see their chance and go for a bit more, and yes, the whole privacy advocacy community is very concerned about this import of these stupid ideas into Australia,” he says.

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