On the Record

The following article is from the Le Monde diplomatique, and is about how as part of the war on terror there has been increased pre-screening of people and stockpiling personal data about people coming into the U.S. You can see the original article at http://mondediplo.com/2003/08/01ramonet.

On the record
By Ignacio Ramonet
Le Monde diplomatique
August 2003

"Big Brother is watching you" George Orwell, 1984

If you were thinking of taking your summer holidays in the United States this year you might like to know that, under an agreement between the European Commission and the US federal authorities, items of personal information will be communicated, without your consent, by the airline company with which you travel to the US Customs. Even before you board the plane the US authorities will already know your surname, first name, age, address, passport number, credit card number, state of health, food preferences (which could indicate your religion) and your previous travels.

All this information will be fed into a data- processing system known as CAPPS (computer-assisted passenger pre-screening system) to help identify suspect people. By checking the identity of every traveller and cross-checking it with information available from the police, the State Department, the Department of Justice and the banks, CAPPS will evaluate the degree of danger passengers pose and will colour-code them accordingly: green for harmless, yellow for doubtful and red for those to be prevented from boarding. If the visitor is Muslim, or from the Middle East, a yellow code will be assigned automatically. The Border Security programme authorises customs officers to photograph the yellow-coded and take their fingerprints.

Latin Americans are also being watched. We now know that 65 million Mexicans, 31 million Colombians and 18 million citizens of Central America have files on them in the US, without their knowledge. Each file has their date and place of birth, gender, names of their parents, a physical description, their marriage status, the number of their passport and their stated profession. Often the files include confidential information such as personal addresses, phone numbers, bank account details, car registration numbers and fingerprints. It seems that the entire population of Latin America is gradually being put on file by Washington.

James Lee, spokesman for ChoicePoint, the company that buys these files to re-sell them to the US government, explained the process: "Our whole purpose in life is to sell data to make the world a safer place.What risks do people coming into our country represent?" (1). It should be noted that in the US it is against the law to stockpile personal data. But there is no law preventing a private company from collecting data on behalf of the US government. ChoicePoint, with its headquarters near Atlanta, Georgia, is a familiar name from the recent past. In Florida, during the US presidential elections in 2000, its subsidiary Database Technologies was hired by the state to reorganise its electoral lists. The result was that thousands of Floridians were deprived of their right to vote, which then affected the result of the election: it was won by George Bush by a mere 537 votes, a victory that put him into the White House (2).

Foreigners are not the only people subjected to increased surveillance. Americans themselves are suffering from the current paranoia. New controls, authorised by the USA Patriot Act, are threatening personal privacy and secrecy of correspondence. Authorisation is no longer required for telephone tapping. Inquiring authorities can now access personal information without needing a search warrant. For example, the FBI is currently asking libraries to provide them with lists of the books and internet sites consulted by their members as a way of building "intellectual profiles" of individual readers (3).

The scariest of all the projects of illegal state surveillance is the one being created by the Pentagon under the codename Total Information Awareness (4), a system for total data surveillance that has been entrusted to the care of Admiral John Poindexter, a man who was sentenced in the 1980s for having been the instigator of the Iran-Contra affair.

The project proposes collecting an average 40 pages of information on each of the 6 billion inhabitants of this planet and entering them into a supercomputer. By processing all available personal data - credit card payments, media subscriptions, banking activities, phone calls, website visits, email, police files, insurance details, medical and social security information - the Pentagon is hoping to establish a tracker profile of every adult alive.

As in Steven Spielberg's film Minority Report, the US authorities imagine that this will enable them to prevent crimes before they are committed. John Petersen, president of the Arlington Institute [which calls itself a "future-oriented research institute"], claims that there will be less privacy but more security. "We will be able to anticipate the future, thanks to the interconnection of all information to do with you. Tomorrow we shall know everything about you" (5).

One step on from Big Brother.

(1) La Jornada, Mexico, 22 April 2003.

(2) The Guardian, London, 5 May 2003.

(3) The Washington Post, national weekly edition, 21-27 April 2003.

(4) Faced with protests by defenders of personal privacy the name was changed to Terrorism Information Awareness. See Armand Mattellart, Histoire de la société de l'information, La Découverte, Paris, new edition, October 2003.

(5) El Pais, Madrid, 4 July 2003.

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