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EDITORIAL

Turning the Tables on the Government

This week, the MIT Media Lab found itself in a comfortable place -- the news -- with reports that two of its researchers had unveiled a Web site containing personal information about public figures in government and industry. The Government Information Awareness (GIA) project was developed in direct response to a government initiative called the Terrorism Information Awareness (TIA) program.

Initially called Total Information Awareness, TIA uses credit card and other information to track foreigners’ movements and activities in a computer-driven attempt to identify terrorists. With the crucial cooperation of credit card companies and computer technology that can track people’s financial and other moves, TIA has the potential to give the government private information about its citizens, as well as foreigners, information that it never would have been obtainable prior to September 11, 2001.

GIA, a satirical but telling extension of this technology, gathers its information on government and industry leaders from both publicly available sources and from anyone else who submits information to the website. Though the information is not edited for accuracy, in the long run the truth should come out as future readers can correct errors.

Throughout history, technological advancement has been a double-edged sword. It has a funny way of taking on a life of its own, outdoing its developers’ intentions. Nuclear power came along with the atom bomb, biotechnology brought its unwanted cousin biological weaponry (not to mention the potential of human cloning) to the dance, and even the convenience of telephones and email eventually brought about the annoyance of telemarketers and spammers. This means that we as citizens of this planet must take responsibility for the growth of technology.

Modern computer technology -- much of it likely developed in the hallowed halls (or perhaps basement labs) of MIT -- has the attributes of a young athlete: strength and power, but little restraint. Congress has somewhat curtailed TIA in order to protect the rights of law-abiding and privacy-desiring American citizens. We must, however, always remain vigilant in the face of potential intrusion of the government into the places it does not belong, including our telephone lines, credit cards, and, potentially, our physical location 24 hours a day.

The GIA website is <http://opengov.media.mit.edu>.