Friday, January 21, 2005

So last night I watched the special on ABC about new surveillance techniques and their effect on privacy. Needless to say, there's a lot of Orwellian stuff going on out there -- but some of what was mentioned concerned lapses in surveillance, involving things we'd actually like observed, noted, and intelligently collated. I'm thinking, obviously, of the failure to keep adequate tabs on the movements of 9/11 hijackers who were in the country even though they were on government watch lists. From the ABC site, here's the familiar litany:

Take the example of 9/11 hijackers Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar. Even before the attacks, they were already on U.S. government watch lists because of possible links to the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen in October 2000.

But federal agencies like the CIA and FBI failed to share their information with each other. They were not technologically nor bureaucratically equipped to do so, and they failed to connect the dots that might have led to the unveiling of the plot.

The CIA apparently didn't know Alhazmi and Almihdhar were already in the country when it alerted the Immigration and Naturalization Service, FBI and Coast Guard not to let them in the country. They were even booking flights using their own names, and did not trigger any alerts.

Private databases could have been useful because Almihdhar gave an address also used by Marwan Al-Shehhi and Mohamed Atta, two of the hijacker pilots. Again, no one connected the dots between someone on the terrorist watch list and his accomplices.

Atta made a plane reservation with a phone number that could have tied him to five more of hijackers. Alhazmi used the same address as another hijacker, Salem Alhazmi. And ironically, there was one more number shared between Almihdhar and another of the hijackers, Majed Moqed: a frequent-flier number.

For some reason, that made me think of a very different information-collection program connected to the Bush administration -- one that was celebrated in a New York Times article a month after the 2004 election. I found the article -- still available free here -- and it confirmed what I suspected: the Bush campaign was breaking new ground in the use of personal data while the Bush administration lagged:

...With the luxury of four years until the next election, the Bush team examined voters' television-viewing habits and cross-referenced them with surveys of voters' political and lifestyle preferences.

...As the Bush team analyzed the data, stark differences between the viewing habits of Republicans and Democrats quickly emerged. The channels with the highest proportion of Democrats were Court TV and the Game Show Network; for Republicans, Speedvision and the Golf Channel.

During the week, Republicans switch off the tube earlier than Democrats do. (Republicans who stay up are more likely to tune in to Jay Leno, while Democrats flock to David Letterman.)

... the Bush campaign, which began analyzing the data shortly after Mr. Bush took office in 2001, ran test projects in 2002 in the Senate race in Texas and in a Colorado Congressional race. The data in Colorado revealed, among other things, which roads Republicans drove as they commuted to work, helping the Republicans determine where to place billboards.

...[The campaign] had reams of data that were not of immediate practical value but that helped the campaign understand its voters: for example, Porsche owners were more likely to be Republican; Volvo owners, Democratic....

(Emphasis mine.)

All this sophisticated data-massaging was the work of the permanent campaign. (Note that we don't even blink at the notion that something called "the Bush campaign" existed in early 2001.)

Too bad some of the energy and brain power that was put into this couldn't have been put into the work of actually keeping America safe and secure.

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