Monday, May 15, 2006

Re: Fascism: Are we there yet?

At antiwar.com is the question Fascism: Are We There Yet? Hmmm... I suppose if I'd taken more political science courses in college I might have an understanding of the meaning for fascism and totalitarianism but, like Democrat and Republican and Liberal and Conservative, these are just words which, to me, seem more like the name of a team rather than an ideological anything. I'd written before from the quest to understand what fascism is. There's a lot of people who'll declare Bush is a Fascist, but it doesn't seem to me they understand the meaning any better than I do. The Nazi party in Germany was Fascist, but what does that mean?

All that aside, the article linked above does make for an interesting (and alarming) case. There's clearly a growing capability within the U.S. Government to establish ubiquitous screening of all activities. Their justification is to find terrorists, and to find terrorists they'll capture records of all our activities and then deploy a zillion computers to sift through that data to find suspicious patterns.

When the plan was more public it was called Total Information Awareness ... while that project name was canceled and closed by the DoD, the individual projects were continued to be developed. For example document analysis, tracking telephone calls and more. Again the article linked above has other examples of TIA projects continuing onwards.

As he points out - the administration officials promised us they weren't spying on us. They've also said that revealing the existance of surveillance programs would give "the terrorists" too much information. And they promised the wiretapping that was revealed in 2005 was "it", and that the surveillance they were doing was targeted carefully and did not track domestic phone calls. But the most recent program revelation showed those were all lies. The most recently revealed program is tracking all phone calls, even domestic. Why are we not surprised they lied to us again?

The most interesting thing I found through the above linked article is a discussion of totalitarianism: Lecture 10, The Age of Totalitarianism: Stalin and Hitler ... this is part of a series of lectures about history, so it's mostly about events that happened in Eastern Europe and other European countries in the 1900's. There were many regimes during that period with brutal governments, brutal supression of the people, and which are called totalitarian.

What I gather is totalitarianism is a government practice of having total control over the people that are being governed.

Several times in the article it said totalitarianism required sufficiently fancy technology to make total control effective.

As I've discussed in other blog entries, what is enabling a vision like Total Information Awareness is the increasing capability of computer systems.

So, it's worth pondering how it could be that a database of phone calls leads to totalitarianism? The Fascism article makes a claim it does, but to understand what he's getting at lets try and reason it through.

It's clear that by itself a database of phone calls doesn't tell very much. Especially as, supposedly, the database doesn't have peoples names in it, just phone calls. The most you can do with just a list of phone calls is to build up a map of connections between phone numbers based on who is calling whom.

Building up a map of connections between phone numbers is interesting, but without a connection to people it's not terribly useful. You know phone A called phone B, but that carries little information. If you can add to that the names of the caller and callee, that adds a lot of information. If you can record the phone call, that adds even more, especially if you can automatically translate the voices to text.

By the way, one of the projects in the TIA was specifically to automatically translate any voice into text.

With that in hand you have information. Information about connections between people based on the phone calls between them. There are databases showing the owner name for a given telephone number, and since the phone companies are apparently willing to cooperate with the government to give them access to the phone calls being placed, it's not too far a leap to think they might also share with the government the owner names for each phone number.

But, where is the totalitarian control?

I think it gets to the stereotype of the totalitarian regime. That "spies are everywhere", and that there's a file of your activities being kept by the secret police. Except, in this case the ubiquitous spies are being built into the computer equipment that's running our society, and the files are being kept in a database.

I'm pondering away and keep coming back to this: Collecting data is one step. The totalitarian control comes when the government acts on that data.