Too Much Information

The New Yorker(Issue of 2002-12-09): The Talk of the Town(comment) – Too Much Information.

The Information Awareness Office plays it so weird that one can't help suspecting that somebody on its staff might be putting us on. The Information Awareness Office's official seal features an occult pyramid topped with mystic all-seeing eye, like the one on the dollar bill. Its official motto is “Scientia Est Potentia,” which doesn't mean “science has a lot of potential.” It means “knowledge is power.” And its official mission is to “imagine, develop, apply, integrate, demonstrate and transition information technologies, components and prototype, closed-loop, information systems that will counter asymmetric threats by achieving total information awareness.”

The phrase Total Information Awareness is creepy enough to merit a place alongside USA Patriot Act and “Department of Homeland Security,” but it is not the Information Awareness Office's only gift to the language. The “example technologies” which the Office intends to develop include “entity extraction from natural language text,” “biologically inspired algorithms for agent control,” and “truth maintenance.” One of the Office's thirteen subdivisions, the Human Identification at a Distance (HumanID) program, is letting contracts not only for “Face Recognition” and “Iris Recognition” but also for “Gait Recognition.” (Tony Blair has pledged the full coöperation of the Ministry of Silly Walks.) Another of the thirteen, FutureMap, “will concentrate on market-based techniques for avoiding surprise and predicting future events”–a sounder approach, ideologically, than regulation-based liberal soothsaying.

The Information Awareness Office is working on some really cool stuff that will eventually turn up at Brookstone and the Sharper Image, like a Palm Pilot-size PDA that does instantaneous English-Arabic and English-Chinese translations. But the Office's main assignment is, basically, to turn everything in cyberspace about everybody–tax records, driver's-license applications, travel records, bank records, raw F.B.I. files, telephone records, credit-card records, shopping-mall security-camera videotapes, medical records, every e-mail anybody ever sent–into a single, humongous, multi-googolplexibyte database that electronic robots will mine for patterns of information suggestive of terrorist activity. Dr. Strangelove's vision–“a chikentic gomplex of gumbyuders”–is at last coming into its own.

It's easy to ridicule this–fun, too, and fun is something the war on terrorism doesn't offer a lot of–but it's not so easy to dismiss the possibility that the project, nutty as it sounds, might actually be of significant help in uncovering terrorist networks. The problem is that it would also be of significant help in uncovering just about everything, including the last vestiges of individual and family privacy. This is why William Safire wrote the other day that the program should simply be shut down, as was Attorney General Ashcroft's Terrorism Information and Prevention System (TIPS), which was going to enlist postal workers and the like as amateur spies.  [Privacy Digest]

Leave a comment