[WEB4LIB] RE: FBI to monitor libraries

Rich Kulawiec rsk at magpage.com
Sun Jun 9 10:32:37 EDT 2002

This is a fascinating discussion; I'd like to make a few comments,
in no particular order, in response to points which have been made:

1. I've kept the following taped to my monitor (wherever I've gone) for
many, many years now:

	Never say anything in an electronic message that you wouldn't want
	appearing, and attributed to you, in tomorrow morning's front-page
	headline in the New York Times.
		--- Colonel David Russell, former head
		of DARPA's Information Processing Techniques Office

On those occasions on which I've ignored it, I've usually come to regret
that decision.

2. The problem (or rather, one of the problems, for there are many)
with the expansion of the FBI's powers in the fashion which has just
happened is that it attempts to solve the problem of possession of too
much uncorrelated information by allowing the [largely] unrestricted
gathering of much more uncorrelated information.  What the FBI needs isn't
yet another database full of intercepted email traffic and Usenet articles
and library patron records; it's the ability to process the information
they already possess in an effective[a] manner which simultaneously enables
the detection and apprehension of The Bad Guys while avoiding the politically
motivated (and IMHO unconstitutional) excesses of the 1970's.

[a] I'd settle for "rudimentary".  See next comment.

3. It's interesting to note that had the FBI/CIA/NSA/et.al. simply
used the fast, simple and cheap expedient of tossing the full text
of their field agents' reports and other intelligence sources into
a free-text search engine and typing in the query "Zacarias Moussaoui"
that sufficient information would have appeared on the screen in front
of them to *at minimum* warrant immediate further investigation.
Sure, metadata-based/semantic searching would be far better: but
this very simple approach, implementable with off-the-shelf hardware
(e.g. Google search appliance) or open-source software (e.g. glimpse,
htdig, etc.) could be in place *today*, working on the problem while
more elaborate approaches are debated and deployed.

I find it frustrating that considerable energy (and hype) is being
expended on "reorganizations" and "shakeups" and "communications
enhancement" while such simple approaches that could be implemented
immediately aren't even on the table for discussion.  These approaches
are crude and inelegant: but they're far better than spending three years
deploying grandiose systems that are obsolete two years after that --
if they ever work at all.

(It's worth noting that that announced "top to bottom" shakeup of the
FBI misses the point: the "bottom", in the person of the field agents,
appears not to NEED shaking up, having done its work with considerable
effectiveness and due diligence.  The "shaking up" needs to be targeted
squarely at the middle and upper management of the FBI, which appears
far more focused on hoarding information and evading responsibility
than solving problems.)

4. It's a frighteningly short step from tracking which books people read
to deciding which books people shall read.  (Or to cast this in a timely
light, given the CIPA decision, it's a short step from tracking which web
sites people visit to deciding which web sites people shall be permitted
to visit.)  This isn't the role of libraries, this isn't the role of
governments, this isn't  -- in fact, it's not anybody's role in a
democratic society with the exception of parents of minor children.

5. Of course, the unscrupulous software vendors peddling their snake-oil
"solutions" to a problem that doesn't exist would argue that it IS
the role of libraries, governments, schools, and other institutions:
why shouldn't they?  Anyone who buys that logic is also likely to buy
their product -- or try to mandate that someone ELSE buy their product --
and the fact that The Evil Wicked Mean Nasty Internet is a particularly
frightening bogeyman at the moment certainly doesn't hurt their sales
pitch.  Here's a dated but still very applicable analysis by Brock Meeks
and Declan McCullagh:

<li> <a href="http://serendipity.magnet.ch/cda/keys.html">Keys to the Kingdom</a>

Luckily, it's amazingly hard to censor the Internet, as even some of the
world's most repressive governments have discovered:

<a href="http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/world/asia-pacific/newsid_2027000/2027120.stm"  >BBC News | ASIA-PACIFIC | China loses grip on internet</a>

Rich Kulawiec
rsk at magpage.com

More information about the Web4lib mailing list