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Orlando Sentinel

Pentagon's High-Tech Snooping Plan Casts Long Shadows

By Iván Román

December 1, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved. 

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Mail carriers, plumbers and pizza-delivery workers can breathe easier now. We all can.

President Bush turned the Homeland Security Department into reality last week, mercifully without a program that would have turned your hairstylist and your neighbors into spies for the government.

The danger of having snitches and James Bond-wannabes within our midst is something many Puerto Ricans know all too well. For decades, the FBI and the local police compiled 140,000 dossiers -- mostly on suspected pro-independence activists -- with the help of those willing to go along with targeting people for their political beliefs. Some people were blocked from jobs, harassed out of their professions and even became social pariahs.

So Attorney General John Ashcroft's vehement defense of what critics call a "citizens-spying corps" through the Terrorism Information and Prevention System, known as TIPS, brought flashbacks to the dark days of the FBI's disgraced COINTELPRO program, which on the mainland was used against figures such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

"In Puerto Rico, we already went through that bad experience, and the last thing we want is for the search for terrorists to become the excuse to target people again for ideological reasons," said Rep. Carlos Hernández, who chairs the Judiciary Committee in the island's House of Representatives.

The FBI apologized in March 2000 for persecuting pro-independence activists and has begun to release 1.8 million documents after blanking out the names of informants who are still alive. Debate still rages about whether the Legislature should form a "truth commission" of sorts and hold hearings.

"We are still healing those wounds, so repeating those mistakes are not good," Hernández said.

Concerned lawmakers were able to block the TIPS program, but critics aren't breathing easy yet. To them, a bigger and more insidious danger is coming from the Pentagon with $200 million in initial backing from Capitol Hill.

The same military research arm that helped create the Internet envisions amassing information -- from credit-card purchases to medical records, from banking transactions to Web-surfing habits -- to see whether officials can figure out "terrorist patterns" to pinpoint the possible enemies among us.

Tapping into the technology that already allows companies to track what we eat and what places we enter using magnetic strip cards, the Total Awareness Information program would assemble these facts on all of us from all over the world. It would record what trains you get on, what prescriptions you take, what outstanding parking tickets you have, what hotel you stay at in Brussels, Belgium, or Boston and who you send e-mail to.

Although proponents say it could help track terrorists, critics say authorities awash in data will be hard-pressed to come up with identifiable "patterns" that lead to anything fruitful. This most-sweeping plan to conduct surveillance on the American public since the 1960s, critics say, also dashes the principle that police conduct surveillance only when there is evidence of wrongdoing.

The prevalence of computer chips has dealt some blows to individual privacy of late, but critics say privacy still exists in that no one person can see everything you do.

"It would be like letting police drive around neighborhoods looking into everyone's homes with X-ray scanners," said Jay Stanley of the American Civil Liberties Union's Technology and Liberty program.

"They set it up talking about terrorism, but they'll find a million-and-one uses for it," Stanley said. "It will be a locomotive that can't be stopped. And once you have amassing of information of this type, it will inevitably be misused."

On the U.S. mainland and in Puerto Rico, that fear evokes times of social unrest epitomized in the 1960s. Computer chips could replace nightsticks as the authorities' weapon of choice to beat down dissidents or get information usually forthcoming in court-sanctioned wiretaps.

It could turn into a sophisticated form of blacklisting or profiling that Puerto Rico's lawmakers have legislated against and that local and federal courts have said is illegal. Experts think the program is certain to be headed for a fight in the courts if critics can't get Washington to stop it.

"In the U.S., it's not until now that they've decided to get into that realm and conduct fishing expeditions against the general public," Hernández said. "Now that they've legislated to allow creating these lists and compiling this data, it will be interesting to see how the government, the courts and the public react."

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