Feeling TIPSy?

Now that I've reluctantly become convinced that the Terrorism Information and Prevention System program ( www.citizencorps.gov/tips.html) isn't some kind of Internet prank perpetrated by the rotten.com crew, I'm starting to feel like this country is going Nazi. I mean, what do you think it would feel like to live in the early stages of a dictatorship? Let's do a little thought experiment, kids.

First, I imagine that acts of civil disobedience -- like, say, protesting government intervention in foreign wars, or hacking -- would be deemed crimes worthy of life in prison. Plus, protesters could be detained for weeks without being charged for any crime. Hmm, that's happening right now. Ashcroft has brought us the USA PATRIOT Act, and now Congress is madly in love with the Cyber Security Enhancement Act, a package that, among other things, makes so-called malicious hacking a crime that merits a life sentence. CSEA passed a House of Representatives vote by a huge landslide just last week.

But really, even those assaults on our civil liberties can't compare to the fiendish TIPS program, in which individuals are invited to rat out their fellow citizens for engaging in "suspicious" activities that might be terrorist-related -- you know, things like smoking pot, having queer sex, owning anti-American books, complaining about the government, stealing cable, or owning a computer that doesn't run Symantec's anti-virus surveillance software. Dangerous stuff like that.

Doesn't it seem like a government bent on creating an authoritarian regime would move right from USA PATRIOT to TIPS? Stage two in erecting that dictatorship would be to plant spies everywhere, to keep average citizens from speaking their mind and doing what they please in their own home. When you have to worry that your neighbor or your cable installer or your postal clerk is spying on you for the government, you no longer live in a democracy. You no longer have recourse to the law -- instead you are its victim. At any moment you might be fingered for some trumped-up infraction.

I think what I fear most is the idea that my government could turn my fellow citizens against me. What if the fact that I've written this column makes me "suspicious," and then the next time I need the phone company to come in and mess with my lines, a TIPS spy sees my collection of Marxist philosophy, hacking cookbooks, and Reefer Madness movie poster? Will I be called in for questioning? Will they take my computers away? Will I be told that it isn't a good idea to "joke around" about terrorism in print and that I should tone down what I say about how fucking insane it is that I have to worry about hiding my book collection from the cable installer?

I worry about this shit because it happens all the time. And I'm worried about it right now because I'm watching little pieces of protest evaporating around me. A few days ago the hacker-friendly journal Security Focus ( www.securityfocus.com) -- known for its we're-all-grownups-here approach to publishing hacker exploits and intelligent critiques of the government's cyber-security policies -- was bought a few days ago by "security" vendor Symantec. Last year Symantec and its market rival Network Associates were rumored to be in talks with the government about putting little back doors into their anti-virus software packages so that cyber-spooks could own your home network and check in on the nature of the files you were storing. Symantec denied those rumors. But even if the rumors are entirely untrue, it's still dangerous to have a major corporation -- one that does quite a bit of business with the government -- owning one of the only public voices of dissent in the security community.

Call me paranoid if you will, but I'm not the only one. People who once used Security Focus's e-mail list BugTraq as their home base for discussing security vulnerabilities and hackish wisdom are fleeing in droves to another, independently run list. And I've read more than one thread on various blogs and community sites about which countries will accept political refugees from the United States. Sure, we could be freaking out over nothing. But what if we're not?

Electronic Frontier Foundation board member Brad Templeton has responded to the TIPS threat by posting his own anti-TIPS Web site at
www.all-the-other-names-were-taken.com/tipstips.html, where you can report known TIPS spies so that other people will be warned. This is funny, but the fact is that perhaps we shouldn't be joking. Maybe our knee-jerk irony will be the death of us; maybe we won't realize this isn't a satire until it's too late.

It's just a thought. I figured I'd have as many of them as I could while thinking is still free.

Annalee Newitz (dissident@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd who wants to trust her neighbors. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.

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