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Consider Yourself Guilty

Guest Column
Tae Won Kim

Two weeks ago, William Safire wrote an editorial [“You are a Suspect,” The New York Times, Nov. 14] severely criticizing the Bush administration’s attempt to invade the privacy of all United States citizens and create an “Orwellian” society. Alarmingly, the society of 1984 is knocking at our front step and threatening to sequester control over our lives.

Imagine the following situation. You have swiped your credit card to purchase some chemical fertilizer for your lawn. For two weeks, you make multiple runs to the store to purchase more fertilizer. The following week, the FBI and CIA show up and interrogate you for hours about why you have bought so much chemical fertilizer. They ask if you have connections with a worldwide terrorist group.

The above scenario will become reality if the current Homeland Security Act passes without revision. By means of the “Total Information Access (TIA),” the government is in the process of creating a massive database that will record and make available every transaction you make, every car you purchase, every gift you buy and every Web page and e-mail you view. It will allow the government to recognize possible terrorist activity early and prevent such disasters at the Oklahoma City bombing and Sept. 11.

Safire notes that the project is being led by Vice Admiral John M. Poindexter, the national security advisor to former President Ronald Reagan -- the “genius” who brought us the Iran-Contra scandal.

The scandal involved a secret plan to pay ransom for hostages, with the illegal money supporting the Contras in Nicaragua, although the government had passed legislation banning such financial support. Poindexter was convicted of five felony charges, though an appellate court overturned the ruling on the basis that he was granted immunity before his testimony. Do we really want this man to have full control of our privacy? He has shown that he will go beyond the law; there is no telling what he will do if the power he has longed for becomes a reality.

Trusting Vice Admiral Poindexter is only one of the many problems of this proposed plan. An obvious unresolved issue is who gets access to the database and how it will be monitored. The frightening answer is that anyone in the government will have privileges to it and searches of private information can be performed without a search warrant. Anyone and everyone will be marked a possible terrorist unless proven otherwise. The TIA contradicts our most important judicial principle, innocence until proven guilty.

Likewise, in an age of information technology dominated by computers, security and safety of electronic information is at an all-time low. Who can guarantee that the database will be inaccessible to those who are willing to go the distance? Recall that a security company recently dared the world to break its encryption code, calling it the world’s most sophisticated system. Not surprisingly, another company cracked it with two years time and multiple computers.

Also, we are ready to believe that Sept. 11 occurred because the government lacked information. The information was there: we just failed to use it. Secret agents were sending memos to CIA and FBI headquarters for two years warning that a surprise attack was imminent. Instead of asking “How do we obtain more information,” we should be asking, “What the hell is wrong with our security agencies and how can we fix them?”

There are other means to ensure that our homeland remains secure without invading the privacy of citizens. Chemical supply companies and other providers of dangerous materials can be mandated to follow more extensive guidelines in reporting transactions to the government. The carefully recording of such exchanges will achieve what TIA is supposed to accomplish. Similarly, the government can impose heavier restrictions on who can purchase dangerous materials by requiring customers to fill out an application that automatically inputs them in a mini-database, which then can be used at the government’s discretion to perform heavy background checks.

Many proponents (mainly those involved with Poindexter) tell us that “knowledge is power.” The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 proved that “what you do with the knowledge is power.” The TIA could mask the relevant information under all the junk, making it impossible to see the next Sept. 11 before it occurs.

Tae Won Kim is a member of the Class of 2004.