Corporate Capture of the Internet

March 2002 - VOLUME 23 - NUMBER 3

C o r p o r a t e C a p t u r e o f t h e I n t e r n e t

The Business
of the Watchers
Privacy Protections Recede as the Purveyors
of Digital Security Technologies Capitalize
on September 11
By Wayne Madsen

In the wake of September 11, a wide array of corporations, with the active encouragement of the U.S. government, are developing new and extremely intrusive systems to capture personal data, biometric data and video information.

Prior to September 11, the proliferation of advanced digital technologies had already led to severe encroachments on personal privacy, with medical, financial and other personal information increasingly stored in commercial databases and, often, available over the Internet to anyone willing to pay a small fee.

Post-September 11, data and surveillance firms are eagerly seeking to roll out a new generation of observational and tracking technologies and products that will tear down many of the remaining veils on private activity.

Seizing on the heightened concern about security, the data and surveillance firms argue that their technologies can help ensure safety.
Privacy advocates counter that the security benefits are overblown, that initial privacy safeguards applied to the new technologies will inevitably fail or quickly be removed.

Uncritical introduction of these technologies, they fear, will move society far along the path to a scenario reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984, where Big Brother is everywhere, “where telescreens are installed in every room, every hallway, elevator, lift, every street, square, every possible place.”

Not So Candid Cameras
The telescreen society predicted by Orwell is on the drawing boards of the cash-rich Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The Pentagon’s chief research and development arm has been at the forefront of developing sophisticated facial recognition systems designed to be deployed in places like sports complexes, airports, train stations and busy street corners. DARPA has plied millions of dollars in seed money to facial recognition companies like Lau Technologies/Viisage, Identix and Visionics Corp. Seeing the lucrative profit potential in facial recognition systems, Identix, which is largely involved in fingerprint recognition systems, recently agreed to buy Visionics, a primary developer of facial recognition technologies.

Lau Technologies developed the “Face in the Crowd” facial identification system used to scan the images of nearly 100,000 spectators at the 2001 Super Bowl in Tampa.

DARPA continues funding for the Human Identification at a Distance (HID) Program that combines biometrics —the use of biological identifiers like fingerprints, iris scans and facial attributes — with state-of-the-art integrated camera systems. Visionics has incorporated such a system into its FaceIt recognition system. HID technology has gone beyond simple facial recognition capabilities to include the particular ways an individual walks — gaits, strides and other physical attributes of movement.

Other agencies are supporting video surveillance vendors. The FBI uses a program called dTective that enhances the images of faces captured by bank and automatic teller machine cameras during banking transactions. The CIA, DARPA and the U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command (INSCOM) are working on a system that would transform television camera crews into unwitting intelligence collectors for the United States. Virage Corporation of Boston has jointly developed with the CIA and INSCOM a Video Text Audio Processing (VTAP) tool that automatically searches and translates satellite television news broadcasts. (Of special interest is Al Jazeera, the Arab satellite network based in Doha, Qatar that achieved notoriety for its interviews of Osama Bin Laden.) The VTAP program has a potential facial recognition capability. One of Virage’s partners is Visionics Corporation, the company that markets the FaceIt facial recognition system. According to Visionics, the system can “recognize faces at a distance, in a crowd and at a glance” and can “automatically capture faces in the field of view, extract them from their background and compare them against a watchlist or database of certain individuals.”

According to an INSCOM spokesperson, INSCOM is working with contractors to improve the capability of closed circuit television HID programs to scan crowd scenes from news broadcasts like those of Al Jazeera and identify to U.S. intelligence and law enforcement those individuals of interest who may be present at demonstrations. Presently, the HID programs require a certain television picture quality to be able to accurately identify individuals and match them to a database. But the agency expects to overcome this problem soon. Then, advocates hope and critics worry, the improved software will turn the cameras used by Al Jazeera, CNN, BBC and other networks into virtual spy cameras.

The Emerging Travel Surveillance Industry
The Aviation Security bill, signed into law last November by President Bush, creates a new Transportation Security Administration (TSA). The TSA, which could soon number more than 40,000 employees, is chartered to oversee security at every U.S. airport. Such a work force could increase by several thousand the number of federal agents with access to personal details in government and private sector databases. The key to access such data may be, if its proponents have their way, an interactive “smart” national ID card.

Privacy advocates and civil libertarians should not expect too much sympathy from the first head of the TSA, John Magaw, a former chief of the U.S. Secret Service and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

One of the priorities at the TSA is to overhaul the Federal Aviation Administration’s Computer Assisted Passenger Screening (CAPS) system. A 1997 review by the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department concluded that CAPS did “not record, nor give any consideration to, the race, color, national or ethnic origin, religion or gender of airline passengers. CAPS also does not include as a screening factor any passenger traits that may be directly associated with such prohibited categories, such as a passenger’s name or mode of dress.”

A potential replacement for CAPS comes from International Consultants on Targeted Security (ICTS). According to Ken Quinn, the attorney representing ICTS in Washington, officials of the firm have already met with Magaw and his top training people. ICTS’s screening system profiles passengers based on all of the “prohibited categories” that CAPS does not consider.

Robert Poole, Jr., director of transportation studies for the Reason Public Policy Institute, a pro-business and anti-regulation organization based in Los Angeles, says it is “absurd to apply screening to everybody” in an airport. He urges that the United States move to a three-tier screening process, similar to that currently used by Israel. The first tier of passengers would voluntarily participate in a Trusted Traveler Program administered by the government. Passengers would undergo a security interview and security background check. In return, they would be given a special ID card with a biometric identifier that would speed them through the check-in process. Poole says such a system should be administered by the airlines, not the government. This would preclude the potential misuse of such information by government agencies, he says; and he argues the airlines should contractually agree with their customers not to make such frequent traveler security information available to outsiders like direct marketers.

Privacy advocates say such protections would be almost worthless. Airlines are likely to skirt such an outsider access rule, says Chris Hoofnagle of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a Washington, D.C.-based privacy watchdog group, by making personal security information available to their “corporate families” of affiliates and subsidiaries. “In this case, these family members will molest the data,” Hoofnagle says.

Poole foresees a second tier of passengers, infrequent travelers like vacationers and grandmothers who are obviously not risks, undergoing a limited profiling process. The third tier, passengers about whom very little is known, would be subject to intensive interviews and technical screening by millimeter wave back-scatter (clothing see-through devices). Poole says the Air Transport Association and Airport Council International are currently developing such screening models.

Ironically, biometric screening for passengers traveling to the United States was already in operation before the events of September 11. Booz Allen and Hamilton, the most ubiquitous of the private contractors in the surveillance-driven security field, developed a sophisticated border control database system for the CIA largely based on biometrics. Known as PISCES (Personal Identification Secure Comparison and Evaluation System), the “terrorist interdiction system” matches passengers inbound for the United States against facial images, fingerprints and biographical information at airports in 14 high-risk countries. A high-speed data network permits U.S. authorities to be informed of problems with inbound passengers. Although PISCES was operational in the months prior to September 11, it apparently failed to detect any of the terrorists involved in the attack.

Whatever screening system is ultimately agreed upon, it will certainly be a boon to security companies who will profit from the gathering of personal information on air travelers. Given the government’s past lackadaisical reaction towards misuse of personal information by both the public and private sectors, consumer and privacy watchdog groups expect to be pressed into exercising even greater vigilance.

Tessera Americana
In ancient Rome, a tessera was an identification tile that every slave was forced to wear or face possible execution. A number of companies are now eagerly proposing a tessera Americana — a national ID system for the United States. In this effort, the companies are supported by a chorus of members of Congress, including Senators Richard Durbin, D-Illinois, Dianne Feinstein, D-California, and Jon Kyl, R-Arizona.

Larry Ellison, CEO of Oracle, is one of the leading proponents of a national ID card system. Oracle, the world’s largest database vendor, owes its very existence to a Central Intelligence Agency contract awarded it in the 1970s. In September 2001, Ellison told San Francisco television station KPIX, “We need a national ID card with our photograph and thumbprint digitized and embedded in the ID card.” Ellison even agreed to provide the U.S. government the software to run such a system free of charge. However, Ellison’s offer is less altruistic than it appears. If the U.S. government bases a national ID system on his database product, every hardware and software vendor who would interface with the system would be required to license his software, which would become a de facto industry standard. Ellison stands to make billions of dollars if such a system is adopted.

Also waiting to cash in are the dozens of smart card vendors that are responding to Congressional clamor for a chip-based national ID card containing photographs, fingerprints, retinal patterns and even DNA data. In addition to the hundreds of millions of dollars that could be made from manufacturing smart cards for the U.S. population (with cards expected to cost between $6 and $10 each), stand alone smart card reader terminals costing around $300 each might be required at hundreds of thousands of locations around the country.

Because the United States has been slower than Europe to adopt smart cards for pay telephones, health care, vending machines and transportation, most smart card companies are European and they stand to make the most profit from a national ID card in the United States. These companies include Gemplus and ActivCard of France, Philips of the Netherlands, and Siemens and Giesecke & Devrient of Germany.

Electoral Purges and Personal Data Rifling
Any national ID card system would have at its core a massive inter-linked database replete with personal details of U.S. citizens. The information in the databases would likely be used to determine the eligibility of U.S. citizens for a number of privileges, including the right to vote. But databases often contain errors, and the consequences can be catastrophic. The problem of erroneous information was never more evident than in the 2000 Florida presidential election.

In 1998, Florida’s Secretary of State Katherine Harris undertook to cleanse the state’s electoral rolls of unqualified voters. The $4 million job of sifting through the rolls and purging them went to DBT Online (now known as Database Technologies), the Boca Raton, Florida-based subsidiary of Choice Point, Inc. Choice Point had originally spun off from the giant credit data firm Equifax. Using the massive criminal history, credit, motorist, insurance and other personal files amassed by its parent Choice Point and CDB Infotek, another Choice Point subsidiary, DBT determined that a number of Florida voters, mainly African-Americans, were not qualified to vote when, in fact, they were. Those ruled ineligible to vote included 8,000 Floridians listed as felons in a Texas database. However, many of the individuals were guilty of only misdemeanors and therefore should not have been stripped of their voting rights under Florida rules...

Corporate Capture of the Internet


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