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Government Hackers Invade Your Privacy
T.J. Newton

In the graphic below, the military's Office of Information Awareness has illustrated their plan for a Total Information Awareness System. Near the center of the graphic is a red dotted line labeled "Privacy and Security." The line represents a computer algorithm, and may represent other means, for preventing the "Transactional Data" at the left of the illustration from being used in a way that violates an individual or group's "privacy and security." The "transactional data" includes information about finances, healthcare, education, and other important personal information. The idea is that this information will not reach the "multi-agency analytical environment" unless it passes the standards set for privacy and security, so people's personal information will be protected.

The first objection to such a setup is that it is impossible to protect an individual or group's privacy and security using an algorithm or other means, because any protection will reflect the opinions of the politicians, government employees, and analysts that set the standards for the algorithms or other protections.

However, this chart actually contains a flaw that reveals how, even in a simple model, information can slip past protective systems. In this model, the "Privacy and Security" line is essentially useless. It is, of course, not clear whether or not this mistake is intentional, but the error shows the danger such a system poses for the privacy and security of the public. And it shows that the people in charge of protecting our privacy and security are not going to be able to deliver what they promise if this chart is evidence of their analytical skill.

In the graphic below, a red line has been added to show the error. The "Transactional Data" never passes through the "Privacy and Security" line. Most of the "Transactional Data" is already available in the oval labeled "Corporate Memory." Information about an individual's finances, healthcare, education, and other important personal information is already available through corporate systems, such as banks and credit card companies, retailers, hospitals and doctor's offices, insurers, universities and student loan companies, and other corporate sources.

The presentation entitled Why Should You Care if the Government Spies on You? discusses how Total Information Awareness can be abused by leaders in order to suppress political dissent and frighten people who challenge their government. That is reason enough to abandon such a project. But the kinds of colossal errors made at the program's inception threaten privacy and security even more. Not only is it impossible to protect privacy and security in such a system due to the opinions of those charged with the duty, it is impossible to guard against errors that will inevitably lead to abuses of such a system. The errors in this chart alone indicate that the people in charge of protecting our privacy and security are not up to the job, and depending on the nature of the mistake, may actually be seeking to undermine privacy and security altogether. The "Privacy and Security" line is useless in this chart, and Americans should not trust their privacy to the people that drew it.

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