May 14, 2003


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Nessie Files


Basic freedoms, R.I.P.
Even the serious paranoids didn't see this level of crackdown coming

By Nessie

PUNDITS OF THE left and right are engaged in a heated debate these days. Is the so-called war in Iraq over, or has it only just begun? Has U.S. might finally made right the fate of the Iraqi people and at long last brought democracy to that troubled land – or has a foolhardy America, with one fist still stuck to the mother of tar babies in Afghanistan, just sunk its other fist up to the elbow in the Gulf?

Both sides are, of course, wrong. This war didn't start with 9/11 and it won't end with Iraq. Imperial America is plodding through yet another decade of perpetual world war. That it is at the moment, by warfare's historical standards, of relatively low intensity, is deceptive. As long as we allow it to continue to escalate, sooner or later it will get a whole lot of us killed. At any moment, it could flare up right in your own families' laps. But from where will the fatal blow strike? One never knows.

Our rulers have made enemies across the entire globe. North Korea has not yet beaten it's Taepo Dong 2 fleet into plough shares. Nor, having seen what happened to a disarmed Iraq, would they likely feel it wise to do so. That, as we have been reassured, they could "only" hit the West Coast is scant consolation for we who live in San Francisco. And while all eyes fix on the Middle East, U.S. involvement in the four-decade-old, three-way civil war in Colombia deepens daily. If you think Colombian terrorists couldn't sneak a WMD into the country, just ask yourself how all that cocaine gets here. Saddam himself is still unaccounted <> for <> and may well be plotting some bio-revenge. And what about Osama bin Ladin? Remember him? Is he yet another phantom menace, or really the Lex Luther of terrorism?

Either way, we dare not let our guard down, no matter who we think it is who pulls his strings. Terror reigns supreme. Whether it is grounded in fact or grown from propaganda is irrelevant. Either way, we're scared and it shows. Most of the world is against us, and if that doesn't scare you, it should.

But wait. There's another front in this war that bears watching – the home front. It is here at home that the war on (some) terrorism is having what could easily prove to be it's greatest impact. While American air power crams what some call democracy down the throat of the third world, democracy at home is gasping for breath. Some would say it is already locked in its death throes. A case can be made that it's already dead. Basic freedoms that every American once took for granted have become, at best, fading, cherished memories.

The purportedly paranoid ravings of '60s-era leftist doomsayers had already become the commonplace reality of the '90s. Then came 9/11, an event so cloaked in mystery that even the official version of what really happened is a conspiracy theory. Conspiracy or not, it was certainly convenient. The forces of repression, never been far behind the scenes, found themselves unleashed with a speed and fury the world has not seen since right after the Reichstag fire.

Ed Meese, J. Edgar Hoover, and A. Mitchell Palmer all put together never had the power that John Ashcroft has today, nor had they the perceived excuse to wield it. Compared to the stark reality of war on the home front, warnings we once dismissed as histrionic hyperbole now seem to have been understated at best. The paranoids, it turns out, were right all along. The Constitution really is nothing but a scrap of paper. Rights? What rights? America's at war. Rights are on hold for the duration.

This has not gone unnoticed by grassroots America, nor has criticism been forthcoming solely from urban progressives. Country music star Merle Haggard, longtime darling of the redneck right, for example, has been recently quoted as saying that he had more freedom as an exconvict on parole in 1960 than the average American has today. Progressives across the country have had to swallow our pride and admit that, at least as far as individual liberty issues go, the rednecks have been way ahead of us. Early grassroots, and overwhelmingly conservative, resistance to driver license fingerprinting seems strangely prescient these days. Why, progressives must ask, were we too not alarmed at what we see now was obvious writing on the wall? What are we, anyway, dumber than rednecks? Apparently so. What they saw coming, we didn't.

And in light of the recently begun open marketing of tracking technologies like Digital Angel , even talk of a "new world order" and the "mark of the beast" that characterized the purportedly paranoid ravings of '90s-era right-wing doomsayers just don't sound all that whack anymore. In all our well-meaning, progressive concern for the community as a whole, we had completely overlooked big government's threat to our individual liberty. Then came 9/11. We can look away no longer, even if we wanted to. We don't want to, really we don't. Far too much is at stake.

All liberty is, at its core, individual liberty. No matter how broad the parameters of the profile you fit, when the profilers grab you, it's you the individual that they grab. As my regular readers are well aware , profile parameters can be very broad indeed. You no longer have to be of Middle Eastern appearance, a young black male, or from a country suspected of harboring terrorists, to be suspect, or to find yourself a victim of profiling. All you have to do is travel, especially by air.

Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening II program, better known as CAPPS II, is a passenger-profiling system that would have made Heinrich Himmler proud. Even history's most notoriously obsessive collector of records about minutia couldn't compete with this modern-day legal atrocity. When it comes to cataloging your most intimate individualities, CAPPS II wins hands down. There has never been anything like it, not even close. Implementation is next in the plan. Tests have already begun.

Airlines say they will only provide the government with the limited data they already collect from passengers. But that information isn't limited to a passenger's name, address, and phone number. If you fly, travel industry databases contain a wealth of information about your personal life. Whom you have shared a room with, what movies you watched, what you ate, and whether you are grumpy or easy to get along with – that isn't all that is stored in those files, but it's more than enough to give profilers a toe in the door of your life. Worse, this data never goes away, ever. It builds and builds, and the government wants it all. Why? As Himmler put it, "One never knows."

Are you a regular traveler who books online or through an agency? Then odds are, your personal profiles includes credit card data, emergency contacts, and names and other personal information about members of your family or business associates with whom you have traveled. Imagine how deeply detailed a dossier that even less than adept use of modern software can build with starting points like that. Who are you, really? It's the push of a button away. What does how big a bed you slept in the last time you stayed in a hotel, and what Pay-Per-View movie you watched while you were in it, say about your sexual proclivities? The answer is only a keystroke away. Even your religion can sometimes be deduced from records of something so seemingly mundane as what meals you ordered last time you flew.

Even if consumer protests keep CAPPS II from being broadly implemented, the databases that are being created for the test runs are unlikely to ever disappear. The longer they exist, the bigger they will grow and the sooner they will be used, by someone, for something. For what? One never knows.

What they won't be used for is making us one bit safer. If the mightiest air defense systems in history can't stop a couple of guys armed with box cutters, how can we expect some modern day Himmlers to save us by knowing who prefers king-size to single, or kosher to nonkosher dinners?

On February 27, after officials of the Transportation Security Agency announced that CAPPS II would be tested at several airports around the United States starting sometime in March, the ACLU issued a formal warning . It came not a moment too soon. CAPPS II "threatens to create a permanent blacklisted underclass of Americans who cannot travel freely," said ACLU legislative counsel Katie Corrigan. "Unfortunately, history suggests that the government will be capricious, unfair and politically biased in deciding who to stamp as suspect. Anyone could get caught up in this system, with no way to get out." Anyone who has ever had to recover from an ID theft, or even tried to clear up a mistake on their credit record, knows exactly how hard it is to undo that which a database hath wrought. It is at best, exceedingly difficult, an at worst completely impossible.

Seeing as how already airport watch lists have snagged even such innocuous threats to no one as Green Party USA coordinating committee member Nancy Oden , talk like this is no longer histrionic hyperbole. It's everyday life in this modern world. All progressives, especially the ACLU, should have seen it coming long ago. The writing was clearly on the wall, at least as early as the first electronically encoded driver's license fingerprint. But where was our foresight? Alas, most of us dismissed the early warnings we all heard as the ravings of paranoids, or the delusions of ignorant yokels. Boy were we wrong.

But let's be fair. Even the paranoids miss one now and then. On April 27 word went out on such disparate listservs as the Conspiracy Theory Research List and Declan McCullagh's Politech list, that the prestigious Bay Area database company Sybase had announced details of what they call Sybase PATRIOTcompliance Solution, a software package designed to automate snooping into their users' customers' lives. They claim it provides what they call a "a 360 Customer View," and apparently it does, and then some. Among other things, it features automated notification of FinCEN and the FBI for suspicious financial transactions.

I happen to know someone who, until recently, worked for Sybase. I asked him what's up with PATRIOTcompliance Solution? I was informed that it was already about year old. Even then it was not really new. Sybase had merely repackaged some capabilities they had already achieved. Already a year old, and this new nail in liberty's coffin is only just now catching the attention of we purported paranoids who most studiously monitor such things. Boy, did we screw up. I'm as guilty as the next guy. Where was my own foresight?

And PATRIOTcompliance Solution isn't even the worst of it. Larry Ellison is avidly promoting a national ID card, with Oracle to provide the expertise to make it work. Next to that, Sybase's efforts are those of a piker. And anyone who trusts Microsoft not to sell your secrets to the highest bidder, never thought twice about what kind of man Bill Gates really is.

There's a lesson to be learned here. We need to quit looking only over our shoulders. Some of the greatest dangers to liberty lie right in front of our face, just across the airport ticket counter, and behind the screens of our computers. A lot of software companies have been hurting of late. The great Internet has bubble burst, and the robber barons of Silicon Valley have been scrambling for ways to keep making money. The post-9/11 national security state is starting to look mighty appealing right now. The barons are already drooling. In the PATRIOT Act, CAPPS II, the Domestic Security Enhancement Act and their ilk, we who love liberty hear the death knell of all we hold dear. The captains of industry hear the clanging bell of the gravy train, headed their way, full speed ahead.

In '30's-era Germany, it was the backing of the steel and chemical barons that brought the fascists to power. Look behind the front men like Hitler, Himmler, and Goebbles, and you find men like Thysson and Frick supplying the fascists with the tools of their trade. Today, it is from the software barons that fascist get their power. Look behind Bush, Ashcroft, and Ridge, and you will find men like Ellison and Gates. They are liberty's real enemies.

Don't let the front men fool you. Without the software to back them up, they are nothing but menacing talk.


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