The Bank Shot to Total Information Awareness

Somewhere, retired Admiral John Poindexter must be smiling. The world is finally conforming to the dark outlines he insisted he saw back in 2002. His government program was shuttered 15 years ago, but shards of his shattered vision are strewn across our headlines today.

After serving as National Security Advisor under President Reagan in 1986, Poindexter was called back to public service by Vice President Dick Cheney, immediately after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Government gained new surveillance tools under Public Law 107-56 (The Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act). Poindexter was called in by Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to wield them.

Poindexter was ahead of his time. His Total Information Awareness program sparked a public outcry that Congress could not ignore. The program was shut down in 2003, but the vision behind it not only survived — it has flourished in the private sector.

Even after his office was shut down, Poindexter continued work on what was variously known as “Project Basketball” or “Project Backboard.” The metaphor is instructive. If you are not allowed to move the ball directly into the basket, a less direct way may prove to be more effective.

Poindexter was convinced that the best way to track any sleeper-cell terrorists in the United States would be to surveil everyone, because an individual’s actions can be best predicted by mapping and interpreting the patterns of their associations.

Mark Zuckerberg was a high school teenager when Poindexter was run out of town, but he must have been watching.

Cambridge Analytica parlayed survey results from 267,000 Facebook users to build profiles of 50 million users, because Facebook gave CA access to the profiles of friends of friends. The precise number might be 87 million users affected, but it was not a security breach. The true and honest number of how many Facebook users who have been surveilled? All of them.

Every Facebook user is spied upon, by Facebook and its advertising customers. That’s not Facebook’s bug. It’s Facebook’s business. Those psychographic profiles, and the targeted ads they make possible, are what Facebook sells to its clients. Google and Amazon do the same thing, though perhaps not quite as brazenly, or as well.

Did Russians use this technology to meddle in our 2016 election? That question is too specific. This technology is meddling with us all the time. We marvel at how well our devices “know us.” We ask them for advice or assistance. Each exchange is added to our digital file, carving our profile ever more minutely.

Poindexter’s proposal ran afoul of American civil rights, but Facebook and others have simply asked Americans to exchange their rights for access to these tools. We accept their Terms of Service. The button we hit to confirm our compliance: “Submit.”

Is Zuckerberg more trustworthy than Poindexter? Can commercial enterprises be trusted to go where government has said it will not? Can we be sure our government stopped spying on its citizens in 2003? Have you noticed the ashen look lately on Sen. Ron Wyden’s face?

As a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, he can’t tell us everything he knows, except to say that if he did, it would curl our hair. Or make it stand on end, in terror.

Wyden has tirelessly dragged government’s dark secrets into the light of day for 20 years, through four administrations. Just this week, the Department of Homeland Security acknowledged to him that unauthorized cell-site simulators called Stingrays were operating in Washington, D.C., presumably by foreign embassies.

Cell-site simulators allow cell phone communication to be intercepted. Locations of users can be pinpointed. Identities of who they have called, and for how long, can be accessed. Some of these devices can eavesdrop on users up to a mile away.

Wyden asked for this information in a memo so he could make it public. How much else is he not allowed to divulge because he heard it in closed committee hearings? If he looks like a man who has seen a ghost, it’s probably because he has. It’s Poindexter’s.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.