Big Brother's Big Database

Revolutionary Worker #1158, July 14, 2002, posted at

The RW received the following correspondence from a comrade.

Dear RW,

Like many people I've been following the revelations about the so-called "intelligence failures" before September 11. Of course discovering the full truth of what was known before 9/11 may forever remain a mystery, but what is not mysterious is how the ruling class is using this to ratchet up repression. There's been a lot of talk about "connecting the dots" (putting together a picture of events leading up to September 11), but much less emphasized are the dots the government is already putting together--the tying of their databases, electronic surveillance and other spy mechanisms into a huge intelligence pool. A sober appraisal of what is going on should give people pause.

For example the Pentagon recently created a unit dedicated to "data mining" -- the term applied to sifting through various databases for information. This data mining unit is called the Information Awareness Office (IAO). According to Wired magazine the Pentagon is "building a prototype system for collating billions of previously unconnected data points--everything from classified files of lone- wolf agencies like the FBI, CIA, and DEA to personal Internet communications and credit cards." The person appointed to head the office is John Poindexter--the notorious Reagan national security advisor who was convicted of obstruction of justice (later overturned on a technicality) for, among other things, erasing 5,000 incriminating e-mails. All this was part of an effort to cover up the U.S.'s role in funding the murderous Nicaraguan contras by trading arms with Iran.

Such moves on the Department of Defense level are especially significant given what is concentrated there. The Pentagon contains the largest component of the U.S. Intelligence apparatus. This data concentration relates directly to plans for the new Homeland Security Department. In talking about the new department, presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer said, "As a result of this new department, there will be one other place for a centralized sharing of data that goes way beyond the FBI and CIA--that will get information or intelligence provided by Customs, by NSA, by a host of federal agencies that also have their eyes and ears open and their antennae up."

Fleischer's mention of the NSA is important. The NSA, the largest U.S. intelligence organization, is located within the Department of Defense. It is responsible for the draconian global eavesdropping program known as Echelon, which is said to scan all e-mail and international phone traffic, sifting for certain key words. Not much is publicly known about the NSA because of its top secret status. And when a couple of intercepts the NSA made in advance of 9/11 were leaked to the press in mid-June, Congress quickly began an investigation into where the leaks came from.

Meantime, plans are moving ahead to concretely connect things up. Congress has held hearings on "Information Sharing and Homeland Security" where they talked about how to accomplish this. They had experts testify about using XML--extensible markup language, a relatively new way to allow different kinds of documents and data to be shared on the internet. This is an indication of how quickly this is leaving the "discussion" stage and is moving into application.

Another goal for the rulers in this is to integrate the various watch lists already in place. According to the Washington Post , "All told the federal government has more than a dozen terrorist watch lists, run by the FBI, the CIA, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and other agencies. At least 55 databases contain watch list information, some of it classified."

The fact that there are so many lists in the first place is one indication of how far the government has already gone in invading people's privacy and clamping down on any kind of activity they consider threatening.

One woman, whose adoptive grandparents were involved in anti-Nazi resistance, wrote to Time magazine, saying, "Knowing their [her grandparents'] struggles I strongly oppose the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. The name alone makes me shudder. By creating this department, America would open itself to terrorism from within--terrorism most would call fascism."

Meanwhile the FBI is being accused of being "inept" around 9/11--which is then used to justify more of the same, plus all kinds of new repressive measures--like massive detentions, door-to-door interrogations, pre-dawn raids, roving wire taps, snitch networks, etc, etc.

In the course of talking about its antiquated computer systems, FBI director Robert Mueller told the Washington Post , "We've got something like 35 separate investigative database applications that we use." That is an awful lot of databases to begin with, and the point in his bringing it up is to justify moves to make it more capable of doing its dirty work. In fact Mueller recently met with Lawrence J. Ellison, chief executive officer of Oracle Corp.--the giant database corporation--about improving the technological links within law enforcement.

And while the FBI complains about its outdated computers, its internet spy system, Carnivore, is quite advanced. The telecommunications trade journal Billing World and OSS recently reported the results of a study on Carnivore. The study (published in November 2000), conducted by the IIT Research Institute, "recommended using Carnivore [for intercepting internet traffic] instead of commercial applications because it can read more voluminous batches of e-mail and other data."

The study explained how a Carnivore computer is physically installed at an internet service provider (ISP) and the FBI agents then access it from their computers via modem. It explained that, "In pen register [corresponding to a certain type of court order] mode, law enforcement agents can see the sender and recipient e-mail addresses, and the IP addresses of computers involved with FTP and HTTP sessions. In the full-collection mode, the software displays the content of e-mail messages, HTTP pages, FTP sessions and more." In other words Carnivore has the ability to retrieve the header of e-mails--the "To and From" info, the entire message and also all web pages a targeted individual has visited.

These technological moves are promoted as if only a "terrorist" should feel threatened by them. But in reality such strides will make people here and throughout the world even more vulnerable to the repressive moves of the U.S. ruling class, whether it be the next war of imperialist aggression and/or the erosion of civil liberties within the U.S. itself.

In that regard RCP Chairman Bob Avakian's recent talk with Carl Dix struck me as particularly important, especially where he says:

"And so both on the moral level, in terms of what stand you're taking--and if you take that stand of `protect me any way you will, I don't care what you do to people all over the world'--there is the fundamental immorality or reactionary nature of that, on the one hand, and also just in practical terms it's not going to lead to the result you think it will, because the U.S. imperialists have their own agenda and it's not protecting you. The only thing they care about is maintaining the stability of their rule within the U.S. as a base for their whole international system. They don't care about the safety of the people in the U.S. If they did, their police wouldn't be out shooting down people, particularly in the ghettos and barrios, by the hundreds every year. They wouldn't be brutally attacking any kind of opposition to them. That's not their agenda. That's not what they're concerned about, and it's not what's going to result from all this either."

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497
(The RW Online does not currently communicate via email.)