Biotech ID Nightmares and Current Realities

By Alan Goodman

Revolutionary Worker #1132, December 23, 2001, posted at

While researching the government's plans to implement a national ID system, I spent a surreal day at Oracle Open World --a conference showcase for database giant Oracle Corporation. Checking in, each visitor was assigned a data-encrypted pass that contained, as I was later to learn, a scary amount of personal data. And as my companion and I set off to check out the events, we discovered something else: all passes were not equal. Depending on a ranking system generated by the conference database, each person's pass provided different levels of access to activities. This was all enforced by ubiquitous scanners and security personnel. The whole event was a gleaming techno-nightmare, where an all-pervasive security system used data-encrypted ID badges to decide who could go where and do what.

Thinking about what all this power to monitor and control people could do in the wrong hands, I paid a visit to the video store to re-rent the movie Gattaca.

Gattaca depicts a society in the not-so-distant future ruled by an arrogant, parasitic elite selected by their DNA. This insane order is enforced by omnipresent biometric ID checks. Everyone provides thumbprints to get into work and is subject to random blood and urine tests. Even to see a concert, you have to be eye-scanned to verify you are part of the elite class allowed to get in. An elite class come and go as they please, while the poor are lined up in the slums for random urine and blood checks.

Most people would shudder at the thought of living in a social order like that. But the current carte blanche for government intrusion into people's lives, combined with recent developments toward a national ID system, are converging to create a dangerous threat of a society under the shadow of a national database system that tracks and controls even everyday activities in people's lives--not to mention the impact such an ID system would have on the right to dissent and rebel against injustice.

A Dangerous Database

I'm not going to name an agency, but I promised free software for a national database. That software has in fact been delivered."

Larry Ellison at Oracle Open World
San Francisco, December 2001

Larry Ellison runs Oracle, the dominant database software company in the world. He's one of the world's richest men, and his background and his company's roots are in the CIA--where Ellison developed "national security" databases.

In the post 9-11 "new world," Ellison told a San Francisco TV interviewer that the United States should institute a national ID card. While this story didn't hit the national headlines, debate and opposition filled the pages of the Silicon Valley press. Shortly afterwards, Ellison modified and refocused his plan, and laid it out in an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal:

"Do we need one national ID card? No. But the IDs that the government issues--such as Social Security cards--should use modern credit card technology. Do we need more databases? No, just the opposite. The biggest problem today is that we have too many... Today, every federal intelligence and law enforcement agency and all manner of state and local bodies maintain their own separate databases on suspected criminals. All these disparate databases make it difficult for one agency to know about and apprehend someone wanted by another agency."

Now Ellison is putting together a package for a national ID system that is both integrated (bringing together in one place all data in all government databases) and biometric. The biometric part means using something like an eye scan, a thumbprint, or a palm print to verify that everyone is who they are supposed to be, or to identify them without a need for seeing their ID. He explained how this would be implemented:

"The first thing we do is get the database built. And every time you check into an airport during the transition period, you use your existing driver's license. So, you claim to be Sally Smith. Put your thumbprint down here, and we'll ask you a couple of questions: what is your Social Security number and what's your address? And we'll build this database and make sure all the information is correct."

Current biometric database capability was exposed in the "snooperbowl" scandal last January in Tampa, Florida. There, facial recognition technology was used to record the faces of everyone who attended. Tampa later took the next step by using the software to scan individuals in an entertainment district. And several other cities have announced that they have surveillance cameras with biometric capabilities in place in different districts.

Much of the technology to spy on people's activities already exists. In a display of what biometric databases can do, attendees at Oracle Open World saw a presenter track down a conference attendee in his hotel, a few blocks from the conference, based on a stored scan of that person's eye combined with video surveillance cameras.

A Refuse and Resist! activist who attended the conference described a chilling demonstration of the kind of information that can be obtained from an ID card using current database technology:

"A volunteer offered his conference ID badge to be swiped. The database produced his name, the business he works for; how many days he planned to be at the conference; and which hotel he is staying at. Next, by using the ArcView database that provides information from a variety of companies it does business with and that maps geographic information, they were able to tap into other databases for other information about this guy: They announced that he took Qantas Airlines; which flight; which seat he sat in; which day he arrived and which day he plans to leave; that he got the ticket online and paid with a credit card; which credit card and how much is in balance on his credit card. It showed that he stopped in New York for a couple of days before coming to the conference and what hotel he stayed in there; that he signed up to get Oracle 9i and other software material he purchased at the Oracle store at the conference; and which workshops he was attending. By the time they got through, the shocked guy looked like he was watching his very identify being viewed and shared publicly with complete strangers."

If this technology were put together with a huge government database and biometric government ID, the world of Gattaca would look more like a real nightmare than a sci-fi one.

As I was waiting in the press line to ask Ellison why anyone would want to live in a society where a potential employer could look at your medical records or a cop who stopped you could see what library books you checked out, the reporter next to me said, "Why don't you ask him if all this is his idea of what the future should be like?"

But Ellison had already taken steps to make this future a reality. Ellison told the San Jose Mercury: "I've been back in Washington talking to the FBI, the CIA and a variety of other people. I had lunch with Attorney General Ashcroft. I dealt with the head of the National Security Agency, pretty much all of law enforcement and intelligence-gathering in Washington. I don't want to go into too much detail, but there are meetings planned at the White House." And Ellison added, "We are in the process of putting a proposal together and analyzing what it would take to get something running in a matter of like three months, 90 days. We think we could put up this technology very, very quickly."

Who Are the Gatekeepers?

Many people are scared these days.

A teacher friend of mine was telling me about how some inner city kids in Oakland asked if Osama bin Laden was going to come and kill them. Meanwhile, the reality for these kids is that in the current climate the "new security" has only resulted in them being harassed even more intensely by the police in the subway stations and on the streets. And their Middle Eastern and South Asian classmates are afraid to go to school because they are worried that in the current climate they will be scapegoated, investigated, kicked out of the country, or worse.

But many middle class Americans now want to feel "safe," and an epidemic case of "post 9-11 amnesia" has set in. People are looking to the U.S. government and its enforcers for protection--the cops who pull Black people over for the color of their skin, the authorities who somehow can never track down the highly public network of abortion clinic bombers, and the very government that funded and trained reactionary religious fundamentalist enforcers in the Middle East.

Something is very wrong with this picture. And people really need to come to grips with the reality that this social order which breeds inequality, poverty, and brutality--and treats everyone and everything like a commodity--is not going to keep them "safe."

This thought sent me back to the video store to re-rent The Net. In that movie, a series of database breakdowns disrupts airline travel, mixes up computerized medical records with fatal results, and generally threatens to bring about a societal breakdown. A software mogul markets a product called Gatekeeper to a panicky public as the only way to ensure that vital database records are safe, and a mad rush ensues to make sure everyone has their data "safely" under the protection of Gatekeeper software. But, as Sandra Bullock's character learns in the movie, the real danger is Gatekeeper, and those behind it, who turn out to be the ones doing the most to ruin peoples lives.

In the post 9-11 atmosphere, with frequent, unspecified terrorism alerts and calls to watch your neighbor, people are being told to look to those in authority for protection. Better, say the authorities, that the government knows all about everyone. They joke about snooping into everyone's business.

"You remind me of a spate of cartoons that have appeared in the last week, and it's generally a kid sitting on Santa's knee, and Santa saying, 'I know when you've been sleeping, I know when you've been awake, I know when you've been bad or good"--and the kid looks up and says, 'Who are you, John Ashcroft?'"

Attorney General John Ashcroft testifying
before U.S. Senate on secret detentions
and military tribunals

Funny? This man who is bragging that he is spying on everyone is a creature from the dark ages who believes that dancing is sinful. He opposes a woman's right to abortion, even in the case of rape, incest, or threat to a woman's health. He has called the leaders of the Confederacy --the men who waged a civil war to defend and uphold the enslavement of Black people--"Southern patriots" who gave their "lives and sacred fortunes" for an honorable cause.

Ashcroft is, in short, a man who should not have power over anyone's life--much less access to a national ID database system.

This country has a long history of using the data they collect on people to crush political dissent here and around the world.

In the '50s, communists, progressives, and those who simply refused to cooperate with government witch hunts were jailed and put on lists that kept them from earning a livelihood. In the '60s and '70s, Federal agencies led by the FBI created COINTELPRO, a program that collected and centralized data to sabotage, jail and murder radicals and revolutionaries. Government "intelligence" operations against opponents of U.S. policies in Central America in the 1980s resulted in lists of activists being turned over to the death squads in El Salvador.

And the use of such lists by the CIA and other U.S. authorities to round up and murder dissidents and revolutionaries is even more bloody and shocking in the third world. During the '60s, the U.S. embassy in Indonesia compiled lists of communists to facilitate the murder of hundreds of thousands. And former CIA director William Colby described the U.S. Phoenix program in Vietnam like this: "The idea of identifying the local (National Liberation Front) apparatus was designed to--well, you go out and get them to surrender, or you capture or you shoot them."

It is important not to forget that the very same police agencies who will plug into a national ID system are the ones who have unleashed on the public the lying, drug dealing, murdering police of the Rampart Division in Los Angeles and the New York cops who put 41 bullets in Amadou Diallo.

The government is talking about making all kinds of information about everyone available to agencies like this.

Living in the Shadows

Is it possible that the government would use a national database to spy on and regulate the most minor of people's activities? The fact is, intense police state controls have been in effect for sections of people in the U.S. for some time already.

As Mike Davis wrote in The Ecology of Fear: "Federally subsidized and public housing projects, for their part, are coming to resemble the infamous 'strategic hamlets' that were used to incarcerate the rural population of Vietnam.... Like peasants in a rebel countryside, public housing residents of every age are stopped and searched at will, and their homes broken into without court warrants."

Even before 9-11, undocumented immigrants lived in the shadows of society, kept from vital social services like a driver's license or medical care by the lack of ID. In only one example of how this situation is worsening now, I heard that in the wave of "security" measures implemented around the country after 9-11, San Francisco General Hospital started refusing admission to patients who didn't have an ID--in effect denying large numbers of undocumented immigrants access to medical care. Thanks to the determination of immigrants rights activists who held a street demonstration to expose and oppose the policy, this hospital backed off.

I recently heard an administrator for San Francisco's city government complaining that when they attempted to survey the numbers and identities of homeless people in the city of San Francisco, many of the homeless "refused to cooperate." I salute their resistance. Homeless people aren't signing themselves up in the city's database because they've seen that any information available to the city has been used mainly to criminalize, persecute, and drive the homeless into even more desperate conditions.

This has been life for those on the bottom in the U.S. for some time. And those who have not yet been subjected to this kind of government management of their lives would be well served to learn from those who have been living this way.

A Sobering Lesson from the Final Solution

Larry Ellison says that his offer of power technology for a national database system is being moved on in Washington, and I have no reason to doubt that. Those who want to implement a repressive agenda need vast amounts of data management to identify and control those they have targetted. Identifying, cataloguing and tracking large numbers of people is not so simple and requires vast expenditures of societal resources.

As I was trying to connect the dots in all this, I picked up IBM and the Holocaust by Edwin Black. This book has generated a lot of controversy for documenting how IBM supplied Hitler with the technology to round up the Jews in Germany and throughout Europe for extermination.

Black writes:

"To Nazis, Jews were not just those who practiced Judaism, but those of Jewish blood, regardless of their assimilation, intermarriage, religious activity, or even conversion to Christianity. Only after Jews were identified could they be targeted for asset confiscation, ghettoization, deportation, and ultimately extermination. To search generations of communal, church, and government records all across Germany--and later throughout Europe--was a cross-indexing task so monumental it called for a computer. But in 1933, no computer existed....

However, another invention did exist: the IBM punch card and card sorting system--a precursor to the computer. IBM, primarily through its German subsidiary, made Hitler's program of Jewish destruction a technologic mission the company pursued with chilling success. IBM Germany, using its own staff and equipment, designed, executed, and supplied the indispensable technologic assistance Hitler's Third Reich needed to accomplish what had never been done before-- the automation of human destruction. More than 2,000 such multi-machine sets were dispatched throughout Germany, and thousands more throughout German-dominated Europe. Card sorting machines were established in every major concentration camp. People were moved from place to place, systematically worked to death, and their remains cataloged with icy automation."

Reading this sent a chill up my spine about what happens when this kind of information-gathering technology in the hands of an oppressive social order coincides with a genocidal agenda.

But those who would dismiss this as an extreme example should consider this: if you connect the dots between this kind of data collection and the current atmosphere where criticism of the government's open-ended war plans is being ruled out of bounds--and the right of dissent itself is being challenged--the outlook is dangerous indeed.

In the "you're with us or against us," atmosphere of post 9-11 America, it is also important to remember that the President himself is close to the Christian fascists who blamed the attacks of September 11 on the ACLU, secular humanists (and anyone who does not believe in Christian prayer in public schools), abortionists, feminists, gays and lesbians. A vision of people like that close to a national database is sobering, to say the least.

What Kind of a Society Do You Want?

There's a good reason why people have a gut reaction against an all-knowing, all-seeing national database. Even in the best imaginable society the potential for abuse of such a centralized database would be real.

But in this dog-eat-dog society, it can only bring a nightmare situation for the vast majority of people--where millions of people are monitoring everyone else.

Every "unbreakable" database system devised to date has been hacked by someone, or probably will be. Credit card data, medical records, library and video checkout records...all of it is a commodity, stolen and abused, and not a small number of people have already had their lives screwed up badly by identity theft.

But the biggest danger is the potential for abuse by a government with a history of using data collection to silence critics. Martin Luther King was no revolutionary. Yet the FBI spied on his personal life and attempted to blackmail him. At the time he was murdered, the FBI were tracking his every move and had agents inside a majority of the racist KKK chapters that were murdering civil rights activists.

With John Ashcroft running around saying that people who question his policies of shredding the constitution are giving aid and comfort to terrorism, who the hell would want the government knowing anything more about anyone than they already do? A biometric national database in any form--whether a national ID card or a national ID system--is a nightmare that should not be allowed to become a reality. And the people need to be able to protect themselves from the prying eyes of the government.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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