Total Information Awareness Runs Amok

BushhomelandsecurityboyStewart Heady of Tsaile, Arizona wrote in the mailing list ProgressForAZ the following interesting story which I think makes an important point about the need for oversight of datamining and roving surveillance systems:

"In the year after 9/11 I was living in the Seattle area.  There are a lot of immigrants in the whole region from Vancouver on down to Portland, an area with a population of about 6 million.

The street of Vancouver, B.C. at night look like photos you may
have seen of the famous Ginza strip in downtown Tokyo.  Most of the neon is Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Laotian, etc.  In southeast Seattle, brochures on how to get a library card are printed in about a dozen languages. The most spoken language may actually be Somali. 

Looking around you see the future. Whites are actually just another ethnicity in a mix that reflects all of humanity.  A knot of women talking at a bus stop is commonly dressed in full length burkhas, as there are many muslims.  It could be that muslims outnumber Christians in some neighborhoods.

So it made local news when the FBI swooped in and closed a few small grocery stores that catered to Somali patrons and provided them with "halal" meat.  One store had its whole inventory confiscated and taken to a landfill.  This was a small, struggling business and they never recovered.

What happened was a study in how a mistake by someone in a Washington office looking at numbers on a computer screen can turn into tragedy for real people in a distant city.

At the beginning of the month, Somali women who lived in group housing to pool resources went to the store together. They all came from a rural environment where the diet for the month generally included a goat killed in an halal way. This is pretty similar to "kosher."  So in the big city, they buy a whole goat from a grocer.  The stores know to stock a large quantity at the beginning of the month because most of the whole month's sales will occur on one or two days.

To the person monitoring electronic transactions of the type these women are used to, this looked like a sure sign of terrorist activity.  So he recommended that the FBI shut these stores down.  Somalis and other muslims felt they were targeted for attack because they were just muslims, and a lot of them were in great fear of the surrounding society.  They had to spend a lot more time on buses in order to find alternative halal sources.

FBI agents knocked on a lot of muslim community doors, and arrested a few people as terror suspects who were just foreigners acting a little odd because they didn't have enough acquaintance yet with living in America.

The problem with a surveillance program that is not subject to checks and balances, and that operates in secret, is that unknown persons simply sitting and looking at data on a computer screen somewhere is empowered to make decisions that can really screw things up for people they will never know.

About six or so years ago, 60 minutes ran a segment interviewing a former NSA analyst.  He pointed to an example from the Midwest somewhere.  A woman was talking to a friend on the phone.  She referred to the fact that her son had been in a school play the evening before and that he was really bad.  She used the word "school" and "bombed" repeatedly in telling the story.

The analyst pointed out that this had caused her to get put on a priority watch list, because the system was monitoring for key words.

These systems have a great deal of power that most of us know nothing about.  They give the humans that run them the ability to magnify the kinds of errors made in the average office every day into devastating consequences. 

We really must insist on Constitutional safeguards."