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A Warning From the ACLU: Emerging "Surveillance-Industrial Complex" Is Turbo-Charging Government Monitoring

August 13, 2004

A new report by the American Civil Liberties Union has found the government is rapidly increasing its ability to monitor average Americans by tapping into the growing amount of consumer data being collected by the private sector. [includes rush transcript]

The report is titled, "Surveillance-Industrial Complex: How The American Government is Conscripting Businesses and Individuals in the Construction of a Surveillance Society."

We are joined now by Barry Steinhardt, Director of the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Program.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: There’s a new report out by the American Civil Liberties Union that has found the government is rapidly increasing its ability to monitor average Americans by tapping into the growing amount of consumer data being collected by the private sector.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The report is titled "Surveillance-Industrial Complex: How the American Government is Conscripting Businesses and Individuals in the Construction of a Surveillance Society." We are now joined by Barry Steinhardt, director of the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Program.

AMY GOODMAN: Welcome to Democracy Now!, Barry.


AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about this report on the surveillance-industrial complex?

BARRY STEINHARDT: Well, you know, as little as 15 or 20 years ago, we were primarily concerned about the information that the government was collecting itself. It’s now increasingly clear that the government has either conscripted companies, for example, banks which are required to file literally millions of reports about our financial transactions to many companies that are willingly providing it with data, to create what amounts to a surveillance-industrial complex, that is to say, that the government is now capable of and in fact does collect literally millions and millions pieces of data about us, as individuals, and increasingly, is experimenting with programs to bring all of the data together, to create essentially dossiers about individuals.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the most threatening forms of surveillance, what you consider the most serious?

BARRY STEINHARDT: Well, you know, I don’t know that there’s any single technology or any single database that is the most threatening. It’s two things. First of all, it’s the trend. The trend here is towards the collection of all of our information and the ability to put all of that information together and have it instantly accessible. It’s, I suppose, illustrated by a couple of programs. One was the Total Information Awareness program. That was the — Admiral John Poindexter of Iran-Contra infamy who, on behalf of the research arm of the Pentagon, DARPA, was building this Total Information Awareness program, that had the capability to bring together literally thousands of different pieces of data, whether they came from the government itself or from private sector, in an attempt to predict who might be dangerous. Or what’s known as the Matrix Program, which is sort of the state-level version of Total Information Awareness, which is run out of the State of Florida, but funded by the Department of Homeland Security, and in fact Department of Homeland Security has final say over its operation. Again, it’s an attempt in those states that are participating, and many, many states dropped out, including New York State, but to put together all of this data, both commercial and non-commercial, and to be able to search it about any individual essentially any time that the government chooses to do so, without any judicial oversight, without any necessarily without any cause being required.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Barbara, your response to this, and also there was a report in today’s Times about the census bureau sharing information by zip code of Arab Americans with the Justice Department providing all of the information that they have in their files on where Arab Americans live throughout the country by zip code.

BARBARA OLSHANSKY: Yeah, you just took the words right out of my mouth. I’m very concerned, because of the lack of checks in the commercial arena on the information that’s provided, and the inability of people to contest when things are wrongly reported about them and also the misuse of information. The lack of corroboration and the government’s misuse of this type of information has led to many, many instances of people being wrongly arrested, and that’s happened on a widespread basis after 9/11 and before, that type of racial profiling has been rampant and used in everything from mortgage lending, you know, throughout the history of the United States, that this has been a problem, a way of categorizing people that is really problematic, and I just can foresee that this is going to be used in the way that you are indicating, putting together these databases and targeting people for the wrong reasons.

AMY GOODMAN: Barbara Olshansky from the Center for Constitutional Rights and Barry Steinhardt of the American Civil Liberties Union, I want to thank you both for being with us.

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