Monday, May 31, 2004

From Virtual Borders to Internal Checkpoints?

"The Department of Homeland Security is on the verge of awarding the biggest contract in its young history for an elaborate system that could cost as much as $15 billion and employ a network of databases to track visitors to the United States long before they arrive," tying together "about 20 federal databases with information on the more than 300 million foreign visitors each year" and instituting "networks of computer databases and biometric sensors for identification at sites abroad where people seek visas to the United States" (Eric Lichtblau and John Markoff, "U.S. Nearing Deal on Way to Track Foreign Visitors," New York Times, March 24, 2004). The program, known as US-Visit, will also have visitors arriving at "300 border-crossing checkpoints by land, sea and air" face what the DHS claims will be "real-time identification" (Lichtblau and Markoff, March 24, 2004). Moreover, "American officials will, at least in theory, be able to track them inside the United States and determine if they leave the country on time" (Lichtblau and Markoff, March 24, 2004).

Three finalists bidding for the US-Visit contract are Accenture, Computer Sciences, and Lockheed Martin. As some lawmakers raised concerns about "the fact that Accenture is incorporated in Bermuda" (Lichtblau and Markoff, March 24, 2004), Accenture is unlikely to receive the contract. "Federal information technology services analyst Erik Olbeter in Schwab SoundView's Washington Research Group believes that Lockheed is the likely winner, with a 60% probability of snapping up the US-Visit contract. Accenture has a 30% chance of winning, Computer Services a 10% chance, he estimates" (Ronna Abramson, "Playing for the Real Money in Homeland Defense,", May 26, 2004). Olbeter's bet is well placed. The Transportation Security Administration has already hired Lockheed Martin to build CAPPS II (Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System II), which will mine "commercial data warehouses containing names, telephone numbers, former addresses, financial details and other information about virtually every adult American," screen "everyone who makes a reservation to fly," and give color-coded data to airlines to make decisions on "whether a passenger should be allowed to board or be subjected to additional questioning" (Robert O'Harrow Jr., "Air Security Network Advances: Lockheed to Develop Surveillance System to Check Travelers' Backgrounds," Washington Post, March 1, 2003, p. E01). The CAPPS II contract is said to be "initially worth $12.8 million" (O'Harrow Jr., March 1, 2003, p. E01).

Add Matrix (Multistate Anti-TeRrorism Information EXchange) -- a computer program developed by Hank Asher that combines "government data with 20 billion commercial records about people" and data-mines them with great speed (Robert O'Harrow Jr., "Anti-Terror Database Got Show at White House," Washington Post, May 21, 2004, p. A12) -- and NIMD (The Novel Intelligence from Massive Data) to US-Visit and CAPPS II. Then, look at the General Accounting Office's report to "the Ranking Minority Member, Subcommittee on Financial Management, the Budget, and International Security, Committee on Governmental Affairs, U.S. Senate": "[o]ur survey of 128 federal departments and agencies on their use of data mining shows that 52 agencies are using or are planning to use data mining. These departments and agencies reported 199 data mining efforts, of which 68 are planned and 131 are operational" ("Data Mining: Federal Efforts Cover a Wide Range of Uses," May 2004). What we have, in effect, is the Total/Terrorist Information Awareness program -- whose funding Congress ostensibly terminated last September (except "the program hereby authorized for processing, analysis, and collaboration tools for counterterrorism foreign intelligence . . . for which funds are expressly provided in the National Foreign Intelligence Program for counterterrorism foreign intelligence purposes") -- reloaded under different names.

Taking a short step from establishing virtual borders at border-crossing checkpoints to making use of everything from ATMs, point-of-sale systems, to routine police patrols as invisible internal checkpoints will be a dream Total Information Awareness project for the surveillance state. As Dan Gillmor argues, however, "In practice, it'll undoubtedly crumble under the weight of administrative woes and the vast number of 'false positives' (tagging innocent people as suspects) that will make identifying actual bad guys almost impossible" ("Building Surveillance State in the Name of Security,", May 26, 2004), vastly increasing the number of people who will suffer from misfortunes similar to (or worse than) those of Brandon Mayfield and Rene Ramon Sanchez in the meantime.

In any case, the main function of the Panopticon is to discipline the populace under indefinite surveillance and to turn them into a collection of docile bodies obedient to authorities, rather than to generate information useful for prevention of crime in general or terrorism in particular.

The creator of Matrix, by the way, is a former drug smuggler -- the fact that Florida Governor Jeb Bush dismisses as if it were insignificant:
Gov. Jeb Bush said Friday he didn't know that the company he recommended to Vice President Dick Cheney for a national anti-terrorism computer network was run by a former drug smuggler.

But the governor said it wouldn't have mattered because the firm, Seisint Inc., is a Florida-based company that developed a "great" database for combating crime.

The Matrix system combines billions of records on potential suspects that law enforcers can easily search. In January 2003, the governor, the head of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and Seisint executives demonstrated Matrix for the vice president. A few months later, the federal government granted Seisint a $12-million contract.

Seisint was founded by Hank Asher, who resigned from the company in August after the FDLE questioned his background during negotiations on a $1.6 million state contract related to Matrix.

Asher was identified as a pilot in several drug-smuggling cases prosecuted in the 1980s. He was never charged with a crime but became an informant for state and federal agencies.

Bush said he didn't know of the Boca Raton millionaire's drug involvement when he and then-FDLE Commissioner Tim Moore pitched Seisint to federal officials. Asked if he would have done so if he had known, Bush nodded.

"Yeah, because the company itself has a great piece of technology that has been used in the public sector and the private sector," he said. "It's a Florida-based company and during that time -- particularly after Sept. 11 -- it was important for policy makers to be aware of the kind of technology that would assist us in the fight against terror. So I would have done it."

Moore retired from the FDLE last July. Asher was the only nonlaw enforcement official at Moore's retirement party, the St. Petersburg Times has reported. His appearance prompted a series of letters from FDLE agents to Bush complaining about Moore and Asher's relationship. . . . (Bill Cotterell and Nancy Cook Lauer, "Bush Defends Pick of Computer Firm: Former Leader's Background Raises Questions," Tallahassee Democrat, May 22, 2004)
Notwithstanding Jeb Bush's denial, Asher's background as drug-smuggler and police informer highlights the potential of corruption.

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