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Friday, January 20, 2006

This Administration Could Use Some Artificial Intelligence II

You might remember from my last post that artificial intelligence is an advanced computer technology that parallels the human brain in its ability to reason. The National Security Agency uses—as do many other government agencies and data brokers—very sophisticated algorithms that can manipulate mountains of data and answer almost any question asked about your lifestyle, buying habits, whereabouts and more.

In my 35 years in the junk mail industry, this science grew from almost an abacus mentality to what is today the monster of artificial intelligence. It can be used for good, such as determining certain medical diagnoses, instead of using animals. But it can also be turned on the consumer as a spying technique, which I have experienced repeatedly from my junk mail background.

The terrorist threat is real and must be dealt with, but within the law. Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, considered by some as bad law, does allow these incursions into our privacy by the FBI in seeking personal records. Judging from the recent flare-ups in Congress over 215, it may never become permanent, and, perhaps, rightfully so. On the other hand, NSA’s spying on innocent citizens is a move far worse than what is allowed under Section 215.

Let’s be honest. Since the FBI confirmed in October of 2001 that fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers were Saudis, all eyes have been on the Muslim community in the U.S. And, that is made much simpler by the junk mail list industry. There are 1,776 ethnic lists on the market, according to list authority Standard Rate & Data; 408 of them identified as Muslim, 398 Islamic, and 323 Arab. All have a home address, many with telephone number and e-mail address.

Now where would you go if you were the NSA and had captured a telephone call or e-mail containing the word, “jihad?” You’d go where the data is; a list that can match that telephone number or e-mail with a home address.

The big players are the giant data brokers like Acxiom, ChoicePoint and LexisNexis. Others who identify their customers as Arabs or Islamic are Harriet Carter catalog; Eddie Bauer; Smithsonian magazine; Entrepreneur magazine; Rodale, publishers of Prevention magazine; and Designer Checks. All completely legit, but just one more confirmation that your personal data, no matter what, is for sale.

The data brokers have developed a system for recognizing ethnic names from A to Z, and it is this process that junk mailers like Harriet Carter and Eddie Bauer use to identify and sell the ethnicity of their customers, even charging significantly for this right. They also know what products customers purchase and have the ability to enhance these names with a massive amount of demographic and personal data from the same data brokers. All of which is for sale, of course.

So how does this all impact on the NSA spying and FBI surveillance? I bought a book not too long after 9/11, Islam, A Short History, by Karen Armstrong, to try and understand what the people were thinking who did this. Because of Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, which allows access to my purchase records, it is very likely that the NSA had my name on some list.

Further, there is a special friend I have made through blogging in Bangladesh, and he has some pretty strong opinions on U.S. global actions, some of which I agree with. We have shared numerous e-mails during 2005, some of which include his editorials critical of the U.S policy in Iraq. I have responded with some of my own criticisms. No doubt, those e-mails were intercepted.

I don’t recall any wiretaps or having been followed—if they did, they certainly got bored in a hurry—but I really can’t say for sure. If the Bush administration really wants to know what I stand for, all they have to do is call me. I’ll tell them it isn’t for some of the things they have been doing in the last four or five years.


Anonymous said...

Hi Jack,

Good to read you Blog and mentioning your 'special friend in Bangladesh'!


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