March 25, 2006

Talon: Spying on Americans

This week NOW talked to William Arkin about TALON (pdf), the Department of Defense Database that is supposed to "connect the dots" so that the government can prevent the next terrorist attack. Yet, what Arkin found in the database is that too many truly innocent Americans are being added as "credible" suspects which leads to significant problems: 1) too many false positives makes the data gathered unreliable and 2) too many innocent Americans are being added to the survelliance lists. When the data that is being collected is too broad (kindergarten teachers who protest the war) too many false leads are followed dissipating the ability to discover the real problems. And when innocent Americans are caught up into this web, they have no recourse if things go badly wrong.

What types of problems can innocent Americans face if their names are stored in a "suspected" terrorists database? There are a several examples where the damages from being mistakenly put on a list could damage an innocent person's life. In 2000 Florida's corrupt Secretaries of State (including Katherine Harris) paid a company called ChoicePoint to put together a program to scrub the voting rolls which resulted in many, many Floridians being removed from the voting rolls because their name was similar to the name of a convicted felon. Amy Goodman noted in her interview with William Arkin, that ChoicePoint is also a contractor working on the TALON program. What have they done to make sure that the problem of false positives (names similar to someone else's name) aren't being stored in this massive database?

And Senator Ted Kennedy and James Moore, co-author of Bush's Brain, both have found themselves on the no-fly list. Does it really make the country safer when the FBI is spending time to investigate their possible connections to terrorism?

Finally, anyone who has had identity fraud or mistaken information put into the credit reporting databases knows how hard it is to get their name cleared. Are we really ready to suspect everyone until they prove themselves innocent? When you have a dispute with the credit reporting agency, are you satisfied that your word will be taken over theirs? But at least you can find out what the agencies are reporting about you. You'll never know if your name has been included in the TALON database even if you are arrested because it is classified.

One other frightening aspect of this program is how many of the names being added are because someone has phoned in an anonymous tip to the TALON number.

AMY GOODMAN: The Pentagon also now has a toll-free number for citizens to report suspicious activity directly to the military. The number of the hotline is 1-800-CALL-SPY.

SPY HOTLINE: You have reached the U.S. Army Call Spy hotline. You may remain anonymous. Please leave a detailed message of the incident you wish to report. Your call is important. If you wish to be contacted, please leave your name and telephone number. If this is an emergency, please contact your local office of the F.B.I. Thank you.

What will it take until ordinary Americans realize the threat to their own well-being because bad data cannot be cleared up when it is hidden behind a veil of secrecy? We cannot let Ms. Smith down the street decide that because she's never, ever done anything wrong, it's okay for the secret state to spy on everything she does or to use even secret information to decide she's a threat.

After all, when an anonymous tip is all it takes to get on the list, no one is safe. George Orwell's 1984 had a clear example of where this can lead:

With those children, he thought, that wretched woman must lead a life of terror. Another year, two years, and they would be watching her night and day for symptoms of unorthodoxy. Nearly all children nowadays were horrible. What was worst of all was that by means of such organizations as the Spies they were systematically turned into ungovernable little savages, and yet this produced in them no tendency whatever to rebel against the discipline of the Party. On the contrary, they adored the Party and everything connected with it. The songs, the processions, the banners, the hiking, the drilling with dummy rifles, the yelling of slogans, the worship of Big Brother -- it was all a sort of glorious game to them. All their ferocity was turned outwards, against the enemies of the State, against foreigners, traitors, saboteurs, thought-criminals. It was almost normal for people over thirty to be frightened of their own children. And with good reason, for hardly a week passed in which The Times did not carry a paragraph describing how some eavesdropping little sneak -- 'child hero' was the phrase generally used -- had overheard some compromising remark and denounced its parents to the Thought Police.

The threat of Big Brother government has never been more real. If we cannot get some sanity on this front, we face living in the totalitarian state we once abhorred.

Posted by Mary at March 25, 2006 03:30 PM | US Politics | TrackBack(1) | Technorati links |