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December 4, 2002

Perspective: A tech tool for future tyrants?

  CNET

A healthy distrust of government was a hallmark of this country's founding, and has protected us from much harm over the last 226 years. The founders may have disagreed about many things, but they all agreed that limited government power was a key to freedom.

Distrust of central government power was among the primary reasons for the designs of both our system of separation of powers and our system of federalism.

The founders distrusted government because they had firsthand experience with tyrants. They had seen that "power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Note the logical order in the phase. It isn't the corruption that comes first--it is power that comes first. When power is amassed and available, corruption comes as a result. So the trick is to limit power up-front--to prevent the amassing of too much power by any single person, or any single agency, or department, or government.

Another famous quotation, "knowledge is power," adorns (in its Latin form) the logo of the Total Information Awareness project at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. A visit to the TIA Web site will take your breath away. Its name, slogan and logo reek of Orwellian elements. In fact, the Web site looks like either a parody Web site, or every civil libertarian's nightmare.

But it is not a parody. Nor is this a simple case of unwise choices of agency name and logo design. Rather, the name, logo, slogan and Web site contents are all a pretty accurate description of the intentions behind the TIA.

Distrust of government has also been a hallmark of conservatism in the United States. Yet today, we have a conservative president and a Republican-controlled Congress advocating and defending a program that says it will amass a vast database of information on the American people. Even some conservative organizations are telling us that we have nothing to fear from the "total information" system.

It is particularly odd for conservatives to be defending this plan--particularly supply-side conservatives. For supply-side logic, which states that "supply creates its own demand," does not apply exclusively to tax policy. "If you build it, they will come." If you build it, they will use it. If we allow a great amount of financial capital, or bandwidth, or rubber bands, someone will find a creative use for it. That's good. But if we amass an enormous database of the personal information of American citizens, someone will find a creative use for it, too. The problem is that we cannot assume that the people who later use the tool will have the same integrity and assumptions as those who created the tool.

Consider this: It is a fact that the Clinton administration used the Internal Revenue Service to harass its political opponents, and that they obtained classified FBI files on their perceived enemies. Both were illegal. Both were supposedly made impossible by legal firewalls.

It is a fact that the worst violators of Web site privacy policies are federal government Web sites. It is a fact that information is routinely shared between federal departments, despite the fact that such information sharing is illegal.

It is a fact that the Social Security number was legally never supposed to become a de facto national identification number, but when is the last time you went a week without someone asking you for your Social Security number?

It is a fact that the Internal Revenue Service has, within the past five years, on more than one occasion released tax information to the public that was legally private and protected.

In my own state of Texas, we were sold on a state lottery plan to fund education, but not a dime of the money was ever specifically earmarked for education.

In my own county, several years ago, voters approved a bond election for a specific purpose, but county officials arbitrarily decided to use the money for some other purpose instead.

You can't trust governments to do what they promise. You can't trust them to police themselves. You can't assume that, because something is not supposed to happen, it won't happen. So what you do is refuse to allow government to amass power. You don't let them develop the tools that can be used by future tyrants.

To those who say that safeguards will be built into the system, I say that the government has a pretty poor track record of following such safeguards. To those who say it will be impossible to use the database to violate the privacy of citizens, well, it's just a matter of who is sitting at the console. Your privacy policy is only as good as your most disgruntled employee with access to your database.

Yes, we are under a new threat of terrorism, and we must take steps to protect ourselves. But, in defending America, we should not betray our founding principles and turn America into the founders' worst nightmare.

Tom Giovanetti is president of the Institute for Policy Innovation. 


 

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