Commentary

The Poindexter Awareness Office: Turning the Tables on Mr. Supersnoop

By Clyde Wayne Crews Jr.
This article was published in the Orange County Register, Jan. 5, 2003.

Talk is cheap, but surveillance is, too.

The federal government’s post-9/11 efforts to monitor the public have culminated in the widely disparaged Total Information Awareness (TIA) project, the Pentagon’s counterterrorism program that seeks to assemble databases of our credit-card purchases, car rentals, library books, airline-ticket purchases, official records and the like.

The TIA project, headed by John Poindexter (the Reagan national security adviser of Iran-contra fame), comes on the heels of other recent and controversial public surveillance episodes such as the use of biometric face cameras, red-light cameras, enhanced wiretaps, escalated e-mail monitoring facilitated by the USA Patriot Act, and proposals for a national ID card.

In full flower, TIA would require banks, airlines, hotels, Internet service providers and other businesses to routinely transfer all our private transactional information to the government for real-time monitoring aimed at gleaning suspicious patterns that somehow might indicate terrorist planning or activity.

What George Orwell never anticipated, though, was that total surveillance technology cuts both ways.

The TIA’s unpopular director now finds himself the direct target of the “John Poindexter Awareness Office”: a Web page (http://www.breakyourchains.org/jpao.htm), verging on harassment, that documents his phone number, home address and other personal information, complete with satellite photos and open invitations to the public to keep the site abreast of Poindexter’s every move.

Meanwhile, on the TIA’s official Web site, the bios of Poindexter and other key staff have been removed, along with the creepy “eye in the sky” logo. But nothing ever dies on the Internet, so cached copies remain available at JPAO and elsewhere online.

Some consider the John Poindexter Awareness Office just desserts, that government officials and contractors like Poindexter should be prepared to accept the consequences of their unpopular actions. Indeed, the tactic exemplifies the outrageous invasiveness of the Total Information Awareness database itself. But vigilantism and a seeming call for harassment aren’t the answers.

For now, at least, TIA faces a formidable barrier: It can’t occur without high-profile debate in Congress. Companies retain a right to say “no” to grabby government information collectors, since privacy laws forbid the government from getting personal information from companies without a subpoena.

We count on government to protect our rights, not to be the leading offender. Even the so-called “public” information that government has on us — the very kind used to harass Poindexter and even his neighbors — is surrendered by us for limited purposes: taxes, licenses and so forth. The government’s combining it in a deliberate manner for purposes of profiling an identified individual will at some point constitute an unreasonable search — particularly given that we cannot “opt out” of government information collection.

Ironically, TIA can undermine society’s goals, not merely of privacy enhancement, but of protection from terrorism itself. True, there are lots of private databases on us. But it’s appropriate for them to remain separate, not be combined in TIA, since separateness can have security advantages in its own right. Moreover, TIA will destabilize continually evolving commercial privacy standards, and even drive transactions underground (thereby perhaps even making criminals out of ordinary people). TIA can further undermine national security by creating a tempting target database for hackers. And to the extent that TIA results in information overload, diversion and wasted effort, it almost goes without saying how costly it could be for America.

So there’s much to consider before embracing TIA. Meanwhile, the undeniable bright spot — given TIA proponents’ apparent disdain for Fourth Amendment protections — is that surveillance and communication technologies are cheap and readily available, not just for governments, but for individuals. The public forevermore can turn the electronic eyes right back on governments and expose abuses of individual rights.

From relatively low-tech, stick-it-to-the-man offerings like the Speed Trap Exchange on the Internet, to the Electronic Privacy Information Center’s “Observing Surveillance” project that documents Washington, D.C.’s surveillance-camera networks, to the Witness project that documents human rights abuses worldwide — surveillance now looks both ways.

The Poindexter Awareness Office in its own disconcerting way shows people won’t put up with being spied on without a fight. In a way, that’s comforting to know. But perhaps not for John Poindexter and his neighbors.

Clyde Wayne Crews Jr. is director of technology studies at the Cato Institute.