Everything You Buy: Tracked

Pentagon to Track American Consumer Purchases

Thursday, November 21, 2002 By Major Garrett

WASHINGTON -- A massive database that the government will use to monitor every purchase made by every American citizen is a necessary tool in the war on terror, the Pentagon said Wednesday.

<LJ-CUT text=" --More--( 5%) ">

Edward Aldridge, undersecretary of Acquisitions and Technology, told reporters that the Pentagon is developing a prototype database to seek "patterns indicative of terrorist activity." Aldridge said the database would collect and use software to analyze consumer purchases in hopes of catching terrorists before it's too late.

"The bottom line is this is an important research project to determine the feasibility of using certain transactions and events to discover and respond to terrorists before they act," he said.

Aldridge said the database, which he called another "tool" in the war on terror, would look for telltale signs of suspicious consumer behavior.

Examples he cited were: sudden and large cash withdrawals, one-way air or rail travel, rental car transactions and purchases of firearms, chemicals or agents that could be used to produce biological or chemical weapons.

It would also combine consumer information with visa records, passports, arrest records or reports of suspicious activity given to law enforcement or intelligence services.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is home to the Pentagon's brightest thinkers -- the ones who built the Internet. DARPA will be in charge of trying to make the system work technically.

Rear Adm. John Poindexter, former national security adviser to President Reagan, is developing the database under the Total Information Awareness Program. Poindexter was convicted on five counts of misleading Congress and making false statements during the Iran-Contra investigation. Those convictions were later overturned, but critics note that his is a dubious resume for someone entrusted with so sensitive a task.

Aldridge said Poindexter will only "develop the tool, he will not be exercising the tool." He said Poindexter brought the database idea to the Pentagon and persuaded Aldridge and others to pursue it.

"John has a real passion for this project," Aldridge said.

TIAF's office logo is now one eye scanning the globe. The translation of the Latin motto: knowledge is power. Some say, possibly too much power. "What this is talking about is making us a nation of suspects and I am sorry, the United States citizens should not have to live in fear of their own government and that is exactly what this is going to turn out to be," said Chuck Pena, senior defense policy analyst at the Cato Institute.

Pena and others say the database is an even greater violation of privacy rights than Attorney General John Ashcroft's nixed proposal to turn postal workers and delivery men into government tipsters. No matter what protections Congress requires, Pena fears a database big enough and nimble enough to track the entire nation's spending habits is ripe for abuse.

"I don't think once you put something like this in place, you can ever create enough checks and balances and oversight," Pena said.

But proponents say big business already has access to most of this data, but don't do anything with it to fight terrorism.

"I find it somewhat counter intuitive that people are not concerned that telemarketers and insurance companies can acquire this data but feel tremendous trepidation if a government ventures into this arena. To me it just smacks of paranoia," said David Rivkin, an attorney for Baker & Hostetler LLP.

The database is not yet ready and Aldridge said it will not be available for several years. Fake consumer data will be used in development of the database, he said.

When it's ready, Aldridge said individual privacy rights will be protected. But he could not explain how the data would be accessed. In some cases, specific warrants would give law enforcement agencies access, he said. But in other cases the database might flag suspicious activity absent a specific request or warrant, and that suspicious activity could well be relayed to law enforcement or intelligence agencies.

"I don't know what the scope of this is going to be," Aldridge said. "We are in a war on terrorism. We are trying to find out if this technology can work."

Tags: , , , ,

10 Responses:

  1. ralesk says:

       One number: One thousand nine hundred eighty four

  2. flavor says:

    guess i'll be setting up a privatebuy account soon, then - ugh. I need to re-read this article too :)

  3. kyronfive says:

    I'm baffled at how this could possibly be legal.

    • bdu says:

      The courts have already upheld the bits of the PATRIOT act where large sections of the constitution's search and seizure protections have been legislated away, stating that these actions are not unreasonable intrusions to a citizen's privacy.

      If these are not unreasonable, then what *would* they find to be unreasonable? Probably not this database.

  4. kiad says:

    And then one day, wyou kindly buy all your carnivorous friends each a christmas honey-glazed ham, you will get a call from your health insurance agency telling you that your premiums have gone up because they have forecast that you will be eating too much fat and cholestorol over the winter, and that you need to get a gym membership for 4 months for the primiums to go back down again.

    Maybe I am a cynic, but I don't think so.

  5. macguyver says:

    One more reason Cash is everywhere you want to be

    • baconmonkey says:

      until the govt discovers that suddenly certain "red flag" purchases are being made abundantly in cash. I mean really, is this going to accomplish anything other than the appetite for power in John Poindexter's belly? knowing that all plastic transactions are tracked, is anyone who is up to no good going to use plastic? nope. or if they do, it will all be bogus info, stolen cards, or spread out across many people. I suspect what we'll see after that is a big rise in identity theft.

      and if this keeps up, we'll see cash purchases viewed with concern. I mean, why are you buying with cash? do you have something to hide? only terrorists buy with cash.

      • jwz says:

        I mean, why are you buying with cash? do you have something to hide? only terrorists buy with cash.

        This is already the case for amounts over $10k (manditory federal reporting), or for certain kinds of products. Just try to buy a car with cash, even a $1000 junker.

        • fo0bar says:

          3 years ago I bought a $3000 car from a used car lot in cash. IIRC, the only personal information I gave them was for the title transfer. Pretty much the same process as for private party sale.

          As for the article itself, I think I'm going to start a small retail store with alternative names on the receipts. IE, candy bars would be "blasting caps", a bag of flour would be "fertilizer", pop tarts would be "transport van rental", etc.