Thursday, November 23, 2006

Military Documents Hold Tips on Antiwar Activities

From yesterday's NYT: 'Military Documents Hold Tips on Antiwar Activities' A database called Talon, used by the US Department of Defense has entries on antiwar meetings at churches, libraries and university campuses. The head of the counterintelligence unit responsible for Talon says these details should not be on the database and that those recording such details had misinterpreted the remit of the project.

"Mr. Baur said that those operating the database had misinterpreted their mandate and that what was intended as an antiterrorist database became, in some respects, a catch-all for leads on possible disruptions and threats against military installations in the United States, including protests against the military presence in Iraq."

Of course he doesn't want such details, since they amount to more mountains of data hay polluting his already complex task of finding and sorting through useful intelligence in the existing data haystacks he is aware of.

But that is precisely the point about the operation of mass surveillance in practice. It takes on a life of its own. Operators act defensively collecting and recording even useless data because the perceived cost of missing something is so great. In the mass surveillance era, no amount of data, however seemingly insignificant each individual item might be, will be enough. Now the panic will be over recording and retaining data just in case the security services need it.

The people doing the legwork to feed the databases often find they are not properly briefed or have such a range of pressures guiding their day to day activity that even on the rare occasion when the original objective underlying the construction of the database is clear, the actual practice of operating it hopelessly corrupts the ability to fulfil that objective.

As Ross Anderson is fond of saying, you can have scalability, functionality or security and you can even have two of these simultaneously but not three together.

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