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[infowar.de] George Smith (Crypt Newsletter) zu Poindexters TIAO
When Washington Mimics Sci Fi
John Poindexter's evil design for an all-seeing God Machine seems torn
from the pages of visionary science fiction, where such schemes rarely
By George Smith
Nov 24, 2002
In Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem's collection of short
stories, "Imaginary Magnitude," there is a tale of a DARPA project to
create a deus computing system -- a vigilant and all-knowing god
A handful of technical monstrosities with names like Golem XIV,
Supermaster and the Honest Annihilator are built. None perform as
predicted and, as I recall, the Honest Annihilator mysteriously shuts
itself off after being forced to deal with people too much.
When reading of scalawag John Poindexter's supreme anti-terrorist Total
Information Awareness System (TIAS), I thought I had stumbled into
another Lem fable of the future. Lem loved dry references to overseeing
national security mechanisms, not unlike the Information Assurance
Office and its motto "Scientia Est Potentia" -- "Knowledge is Power,"
and he used them as props in bitter jokes on the nature of technological
In Lem's stories, grand brute force projects of this nature always
turned on their makers, or are misused in interesting ways in a headlong
march toward failure.
Today, serious questions about the practicality or even desirability of
a deus machine are thrust aside in favor of rationalizations torn from
the moment. ("It would have caught the DC snipers!") No one is brave
enough to be a doubter from within DARPA; It's for security and the war
on terror so shut up or be relieved. Any doubters mill about on the
outside flapping their arms. Creating our own version of the Honest
Annihilator can only blow up in our faces. For the PBS Newshour, NSA
exposer James Bamford offered that there was no evidence that he could
see that the intelligence community's computerized information sharing
was any better since 9/11. This cast reasonable doubt, he said, that any
vague tracking system for the future would be superior.
And "the lack of clear public information about [the TIAS] and the
absence of any real oversight already indicate a serious lapse of
judgment," commented William Safire from the redoubt of his syndicated
Homeland Secrecy Another lapse of judgment which garnered no opposition
from within is the new exemption to the Freedom of Information Act
(FOIA) in the Homeland Security Act.
Designed to protect the flow of confidential vulnerability information
between the private sector and the U.S. government, it is almost a
perfect legislative bookend to John Poindexter's TIAS, which is supposed
to snoop on and correlate everyone's information.
"It's the decline of western civilization," said Steven Aftergood of the
Federation of American Scientists when asked for an opinion.
Although Aftergood was speaking humorously, he also took time to debunk
one of the evolving memes that has risen to rationalize the need for the
new FOIA exemption: that al Qaeda downloaded Government Accounting
Office documents on security vulnerabilities into the caves of
The myth, as presented by Congressman Tom Davis of Virginia, claims that
a FOIA exemption for critical information would prevent terrorists from
taking advantage of our open society by using this democratic tool to
But, said Aftergood, there is no hard evidence of any truly critical
information on vulnerability residing on al Qaeda computers -- or even
proof that they have a lot of PCs and people doing this.
For the record, Aftergood said when he challenged a Davis staffer on the
issue he was told attempts would be made to verify that al Qaeda was
getting secrets from government servers. No call backs on that yet,
The Abuse Excuse Aftergood also makes the point that GAO reports, like
the recent one on government's failing (that's with a capital F) grade
in computer security, are given away into the public domain anyway, no
FOIA necessary. So what's the big deal?
And anyone who uses FOIA knows it to be an agonizing and often
frustrating exercise in democratic information retrieval -- not open to
abuse by anyone.
The desire for FOIA exemption used to be the exclusive property of the
small computer security lobby prior to the millennium. Broadly
recommended by Richard Clarke and Utah senator Bob Bennett since 1998,
there was little enthusiasm for it outside of the industry until the
start of the war on terror.
Then, the rationalization was the same as now, although narrowly limited
to allegedly foil a subset of electronic terrorists looking to vacuum up
private sector computer vulnerabilities.
In retrospect, Bennett's FOIA exemption proposals were moderate. They
didn't undermine local sunshine laws or extend all across U.S. society
for the sake of cybersecurity. In the past I have said critical things
about him and for this I apologize.
In Lem-ian fashion, it will be shown that the wish to do something
proactive, whether it be the creation of our own version of the Honest
Annihilator or a broad legal excuse for more oppressive secrecy, will
always blow up in our faces.
George Smith is Editor-at-Large for VMYTHS and founder of the Crypt
Newsletter. He has written extensively on viruses, the genesis of
techno-legends and the impact of both on society. His work has appeared
in publications as diverse as the Wall Street Journal, the Village Voice
and the National Academy of Science's Issues in Science & Technology,
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