Thursday, March 09, 2006

Your Friendly Neighbourhood Spy

I was writing a short story last night (this one) and I needed to do some research online. The Internet really is the writer's dream. No more annoying trips to the library. Research that would once take days now takes minutes. You can find out almost anything, on almost any topic, with just a few keystrokes.

In my story, the protagonist had played chess against IBM's supercomputer. I couldn't remember the name of this computer, so a quick Google search for "IBM Supercomputer" yielded the name. Next, I wanted to get a list of famous scientists, so of course I Googled it. Next, I wondered about the feasibility of concealing electronic equipment in a wooden case. So, off to Google with the search "concealing electronics in wood", followed with a quick search on airport security.

For my next Google search, I typed the words "Hello FBI/Homeland Security Agent. How are you?" because, lets face it, the odds are that my searches were registered and flagged. Sure, Google tries to keep this information private, because for some reason they still respect the individual's right to privacy. However, it turns out the government has other ways to get at this kind of information.

Back in 2002, the US Government initiated a massive data-mining project called "Total Information Awareness". The idea was to go around and gather as much information online as possible, sift through it using computers, and investigate possible security breaches. It was a neat little program, if one can overlook niggling issues such as the individual's right to privacy.

Once the public heard about it, the outcry was huge, so the government scrapped the program. Or so they claimed. What actually happened was more insidious. They shut down the program, packed up their computers and the data, and moved the program to a buried office inside the Defense Department. All done very secretly, of course. After all, you wouldn't want the American Public ... *ahem* ... I mean terrorists, to find out. That you were spying on them.
There currently are over 120 different federal data mining projects underway. There may be more, but we don't know. I am certain there are probably federally created malware and spyware projects that we don't even know about. Hell, look how long Sony got away with it.

So, naturally, the question is, is it ok for the government to spy on its people (and the people of other countries) and violate their constitutional rights to privacy, all in the name of combating terrorism? Well, I suppose you could make the argument that it is, if the program was at all effective. But according to media analysts, these programs generate an astronomical number of red herrings, which put an enormous drain on investigative resources. Time and effort that could be better spent pursuing more traditional avenues of investigation (that incidentally do not impact as greatly on our rights and freedoms).

It boils down to this: By using the threat of terrorist activity to justify invasions against the rights and privacy of its own citizens, the US has altered its own constitutional mandates. In effect, they have changed the nature of their own country from one that respects the rights of its citizens to one that constantly orders illegal wire taps, and uses other methods to spy on its own people.

This is the real tragedy. America has been forever altered, and is no longer the country it was prior to 9-11. Sadly, they have done nothing to combat the root causes of terrorism, and have instead focused internally. If the US government was serious about ending the threat of terrorism, they'd stop meddling in the affairs of dragons.

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