THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 260, February 22, 2004
Better late than never
Pick Your Pill
Special to TLE
In the movie The Matrix, [DVD and VHS] the lead character is asked to swallow either a red pill or a blue pill. He is to choose based on the fact that one pill will make him forget what he's learned so far and wake up in his own bed. The other will result in him obtaining knowledge that will change the way he lives and sees the world around him irrevocably and forever. Neo chooses the knowledge. I relate to Neo because that would have been my choice, too.
Without knowledge, informed decisions cannot be made and appropriate actions cannot be taken. That's why, along with my own personal activist efforts, I work to educate others as to programs, precedents, and other circumstances that are havingor will havean effect on our civil liberties. I firmly believe that, with adequate knowledge in hand, the vast majority of people will choose freedom and make their subsequent decisions accordingly. That's why I take it seriously when I receive an email that asks questions about some stance I've taken on an issue, or about the issue itself.
This week, one of the notes I received was from a someone who seemed earnest and willing to hear more, but who had a number of questions that obviously were causing him some concern. The writer was respectful, but he disagrees with many things things I've said and information I've posted about the MATRIX (Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange) Program. He asked me in his note to clarify my position. I'm sharing his questions and my answers with you because I think what he had to say is pertinent. Of course, I also hope my answers will not only be helpful to him but perhaps provide added information for your own collection of knowledge as well.
Question: What is your fear of MATRIX? Is it just that you don't know what it contains? Or are you opposed in general to the government being able to access information that law offices and businesses can already access?
Answer: We do know many of the things that the MATRIX database does, or will, contain, much of which is not applicable to a single criminal investigation. And while I am not opposed in general to the government being able to access certain information about its citizens, what I do fear is the notion of one gigantic central depository of information, and the government's access to massive amounts of data on each of us at a keystroke without a warrant or even a suspicion.
The unspoken part of this question seems to me to be the classic, "If you don't have anything to hide, why is this a problem for you?" The short response is, "Sure, I do. We all have something to hide." That doesn't necessarily mean anything illegal (I'll voluntarily tell you that I've never even had so much as a traffic ticket). It just means that some things are private. There's a much more eloquent answer to this question posted on the CASPIAN (Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering) Web site on one of its Frequently Asked Questions pages, and one with which I wholeheartedly concur.
The MATRIX Web site does address the use of its database software on its own Frequently Asked Questions page where it claims that, while no warrant is needed for the information on the database, it requires that the person being investigated be the object of "an actual criminal investigation." But what leaves the database wide open for abuse is the other requirement considered acceptable for database use: a need for "domestic security threat information." Conceivably, just about any search is justified under that broad and subjective parameter.
Question: I know people in law offices who use Lexis Nexis to find information on people. So why can't the government access the same information?
Answer: It can. It is apparently choosing not to.
In fact, if MATRIX is really intended as a help in criminal investigations only, a Philadelphia group has set up a network of agencies which are linked together to provide a "rapid, secure and configurable sharing of criminal information." The Legal Reader article about this program says it is both cheaper and more secure than MATRIX. Public information could then be obtained as needed from such agencies as, for example, Lexis Nexis. But such an alternative is probably not being considered due to the fact that, regardless of what the MATRIX pages claim, the program was (according to The Washington Times as well as the program's inventor who was inspired by the events of 9/11) intended to track terrorists and for terrorist investigations.
Question: Why do you try to scare the public?
Answer: If you or anyone else is afraid of what I've said about MATRIX, that's not because I'm trying to scare people. It's because the notion of such a program with the information it contains and the uses to which it will be put is legitimately frightening. If you think I'm trying to scare people, blame the scary facts, not the person stating them.
On the official MATRIX Web site, there has been an effort made to quell some fears. On a page entitled "Matrix Misconceptions," it is specifically said that the program is not a substitute for the Total (or Terrorism) Information Awareness Project (TIA) initiated by the Pentagon, now defunded by Congress due in large part to privacy concerns. Yet just weeks ago, the ACLU obtained evidence that showed the substantial similarities between the two programs.
The MATRIX pages also say that the program is not a data mining applicationsomething roundly criticized in the TIA concept. Yet documents have been obtained that conclusively show that agencies such as the FBI, Secret Service, INS, and DEA helped to configure data mining software for MATRIX.
Where privacy issues are concerned, the vendor assures citizens that it is "not permitted to access law enforcement data" entered into the database, but in the same sentence makes an exception for "its supporting role." There's no way of knowing, of course, just how large a "supporting role" the vendor might play, but such confidential information would certainly be accessible in such instances. We're also told that only authorized personnel will have access to MATRIX and that's supposed to make us feel safer. But even in these early testing stages of the program, authorized users have been caught using the database inappropriately.
And what if dataany dataturns out to be in error? Well, the MATRIX FAQ page says that data retrieved via its services must be verified before any arrest warrants are issued. But who will it be verified with? Why, with the agency providing the erroneous data, of course! And how can you know if the information about you retrieved by MATRIX contains any errors? You can't. But the helpful people at the MATRIX Web site say that "persons wishing to access data pertaining to themselves should communicate directly with the agency or entity that is the source of the data in question." Of course, since I have no idea what my own personal "dossier" contains let alone whether a given item is accurate or not, making corrections might prove just a tad difficult.
Question: I can go online and get your phone number off the Internet or even a satellite photo of your house or neighborhood. So why can't law enforcement have this information in a database?
Answer: Actually, you can't get my phone number off the Internet. You also won't be able to find my street address. That's because I've taken precautions to protect my own privacy. I felt the need to do so when the old boundaries between public and private information became blurred to such an extent they're essentially erased. (Those of you interested in taking similar action for yourself might want to start where I did, and that's with Boston T. Party's informative book Bulletproof Privacy.)
The reason I don't want you to have my phone number or my address is simple: it's quite frankly none of your business. And unless I'm under active investigation for some crime, even readily available personal information about me is none of anybody else's business, either. It's a bitter pill to swallow, but the fact is that MATRIX is attempting towhether it says the words or notmake "dossiers" available on each of us on demand. And it's clear that, despite denials, the probability of data mining by authorities is also very strong. These are invasions of privacy that even people like you and mepeople with nothing pertinent to hideshould find as offensive as a hidden camera in our bathrooms. And I do.
Is America becoming a police state? Friends of liberty need to know.
Some say the U.S. is already a police state. Others watch the news for signs that their country is about to cross an indefinable line. Since September 11, 2001, the question has become more urgent. When do roving wiretaps, random checkpoints, mysterious "detentions," and military tribunals cross over from being emergency measures to being the tools of a government permanently and irrevocably out of control?
The State vs. the People examines these crucial issues. But first, it answers this fundamental question: "What is a police state?"
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