Internaut: Privacy trade-offs could build more tolerance for TIA

Shawn P. McCarthy

When Thomas Paine wrote in 1776, 'These are the times that try men's souls,' he was talking about the choices citizens are forced to make during a major conflict.

Consider Paine's words in the context of the Defense Department's controversial Total Information Awareness data-mining project.

In one proposed model, TIA would cull data from dozens of sources'medical insurers, credit card companies, motor vehicle agencies and Internet sites'in hopes of identifying patterns of daily activities that point to terrorism.

Supporters view TIA as a powerful tool to detect previously unknown terrorist agents and their plans. Opponents view it as a dangerous invasion of privacy and a potential means of harassment. Congress has set limits on TIA and arranged for extended scrutiny before it's approved.

In peaceful times, most of us would balk at the range of private information TIA would collect. It's no one else's business what we buy, where we go, whom we call and where we receive medical attention.

But in these troubled times, we also recognize that collecting a broad range of information might save us from terrorists, who leave many small data tracks as they move through modern society.

As Paine said, it's a soul-trying issue. Some trade-offs could be made on either side to let TIA operate while minimizing its fallout.

What should we expect of DOD and civilian investigators?
  • They are responsible for protecting U.S. citizens, so we should allow them the tools and information they need to do their job efficiently.

  • We should expect them to act quickly if and when they uncover specific terrorist patterns.

  • Data mining might turn up information about sexual orientation, membership in a fringe church or a taste for certain reading material. People will be less likely to object to TIA if they know they will not be judged or persecuted about activities that have no link to terrorism.

  • TIA will not grant due process of law, so the government must make a solid effort to weed out bad data that could harm innocent lives.

  • DOD's ethical oversight panel should have members who distrust TIA as well as members who support it. That way, the panel can be counted on to double-check how the data is used. Give members a security clearance if necessary, and let them influence TIA's evolution.

Citizens entrust very personal information to the government, and government employees must not betray that trust for their own political or moral purposes. If they do, any short-term gain will be negated by the long-term failure of TIA.

The policy of 'Don't ask, don't tell' must be extended to 'Don't care' about anything but terrorism.

Shawn P. McCarthy has designed products for a Web search engine provider. E-mail him at mccarthy_s@lycos.com.

About the Author

Shawn McCarthy, a former writer for GCN, is senior analyst and program manager for government IT opportunities at IDC.

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