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"Technology Raises Risk of Tyranny"--A Commentary by Robert Heverly

(This essay was originally published in the December 5, 2002, edition of the Los Angeles Times.)

Technology Raises Risk of Tyranny
The administration's sophisticated initiatives are terrifying.

By Robert A. Heverly, fellow, Information Society Project at Yale Law School

What does the government know about you?

As technology has changed in recent years, the type and the quantity of information about us that the government can use have increased and changed. How government gathers and uses information is changing in ways that should be important to a people asserting the right to control its government.

Most people are probably not aware of the scope of these changes or why they are important to our everyday lives in a free society. People want to be safe. But will these changes really make us safer?

When we look closely, we can discern a pattern of information gathering underway at the national level that is staggering in its breadth and purposes. Its relationship to our safety is tenuous, at best.

So we must look closer still. The national information-gathering puzzle is made up of many pieces. Viewed separately, some may seem innocuous, even common sense, while others are troubling. Viewed together, their existence should give us all pause.

Consider the Justice Department's Operation TIPS (Terror Information Protection System), the Department of Transportation's CAPPS II (Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System II) program and the Pentagon's Total Information Awareness initiative. Any one of these three projects alone is frightening. Considered together against a backdrop of personal liberties, they are terrifying.

The danger posed to freedom by the administration's current initiatives lies in the use of computers and computer systems, which allow for much of the collection and use of information. Computer power allows government to access a greater variety of types of information, pull more pieces together into a whole and analyze data without needing to have a human being look at it.

In the past, government could collect information, but it couldn't necessarily use it all. Human intervention was required to make connections between pieces of information. When government wanted to tyrannize its citizens, it gathered information and placed it in Manila file folders. Perhaps some of these files were centrally located under the control of a person charged with determining the importance of that information. Yet the government had only so many resources; there were only so many people who could be tyrannized at one time. People reviewed people, and people could do only so much. The danger of mass tyranny was not based on information itself, but on the leg power of government.

But today computers allow different government agencies to share information; information collected for one purpose is now reviewed for others. Computers analyze according to their programs, spitting out potential relationships between facts and figures. Tyranny, as much as if not more than freedom, is facilitated by the computer. And the administration's current programs have the potential for tyrannical effects.

How does the Bush administration respond to civil rights advocates concerned about its efforts? As it does with its justification for nearly all of its current activities: by reference to the "war on terrorism." And while the administration admits that it cannot ensure our safety from terrorism, all the while it goes about establishing systems designed to violate our freedoms and liberties in pursuit of a politically expedient (and false) sense of security.

There are those who would argue that protecting the lives of Americans takes precedence over freedoms, liberties and perhaps all other obligations. We, as a nation, must reject this argument. Benjamin Franklin, more than 20 years before the Revolutionary War, said, "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

We know that information can lead to tyranny, yet our government is purposefully collecting and using more information about American citizens than it has ever had before. Information about you and me, about mothers and fathers, about sons and daughters.

What will our government do with that information? The administration says it will use the information to keep us safe. The real question is: From whom?

Robert A. Heverly is a fellow with the Information Society Project of Yale Law School.