November 22, 2002

'Total information awareness' – the impossible dream of tyrants

The latest scheme to enslave us in the name of waging a "war on terrorism" is so bizarre, so obviously the product of a nascent megalomania, that it seems like something out of a very bad novel. According to published reports, the U.S. government is compiling a database that will be used to monitor "every purchase made by every American citizen." The program is being developed by a convicted felon.

According to Edward Aldridge, undersecretary of Acquisitions and Technology, this is going to be an invaluable "tool" that "would look for telltale signs of suspicious consumer behavior." Fox News reports:

"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."

So, comrade, you're only traveling one-way to Chicago now why is that?

So, citizen Raimondo, you just withdrew nine-tenths of the money in your bank account do you care to explain yourself?

(Hey, I live in San Francisco, brother that's my rent!)

The new era of techno-totalitarianism is upon us. Or is it?

While never underestimating the evil intentions of our aspiring Ministry of Governmental Omniscience (MOGO), the idea of "total information awareness" is utterly impossible which is why socialism is a discredited failure and the Soviet Union is no more. For the Soviet commissars, and their Western amen corner, in positing the superiority of economic planning over the "anarchy" of the market, overlooked a simple fact of human nature. Human beings are fallible, limited not only in their knowledge but also in their capacity to take in and analyze information. In the market system, prices summarize and describe a reality that no single human mind can encompass or even comprehend. Economic calculation in the socialist commonwealth is an impossibility, as Ludwig von Mises was the first to point out, due to the blackout of information provided by prices. The socialist planners sought to substitute themselves for the price system: socialism, which was unable to allocate resources efficiently, was doomed from the start.

MOGO will meet the same fate as the Soviets, and techno-totalitarianism is doomed for the same reason as its Marxist and national socialist antecedents: it cannot possibly fulfill its extravagant promises. The Communists promised their subjects material abundance and a great leap forward into modernity: what they got instead was abject poverty and absolute cultural and technological stasis. The techno-totalitarians promise us physical security: if the pattern holds, what we'll get is another 9/11.

For if the illusion of "total awareness" becomes widespread, this can only foster a dangerous complacency while the terrorists go around the fringes of society, and the innocent are caught up in the same system that strip-searches little old ladies at airports. It's all so pathetically predictable that to watch the process unfold is like seeing a terrible accident take place, only in slow motion, the horror accentuated by an eerie feeling of déjà-vu.

The Washington Times reports the dizzying scope of our rulers' ambition:

"The program will fund research and development of technologies that will allow the federal government to track the e-mail, Internet use, travel, credit-card purchases, phone, bank records and every type of available public and private data in what the Pentagon describes as one 'centralized grand database.'"

And what will they do with all this information? Computers can store data, but they cannot tell us what to retrieve. The creators of these machines are still the ultimate decision-makers, and we are back to the same old problem. Human fallibility definitely is a problem for aspiring dictators, who have been dreaming of infallibility through "total information awareness" since the days of Domitian. They will never attain it. But that isn't going to stop them from trying and acquiring enormous power in the process.

The glorification of technology as the magic key to all mankind's problems is the cause of what may be a fatal hubris on the part of our technocrats. Their conception of what machines, by themselves, can do is outrageously inflated, almost mystic in its unthinking faith. Admiral Aldridge bloviates:

"It's kind of a signal-to-noise ratio. What are they doing in all these things that are going on around the world? And we decided that new capabilities and new technologies are required to accomplish that task."

But what are these magical techniques, otherwise known as "new technologies," that will give us the means to select the right information out of an abundance of data? As explained by the Washington Times:

"For example, the system will try to find any terrorist links between people issued passports, visas or work permits and the purchase of weapons or explosive materials, Adm. Aldridge said. It would cull data from credit cards and purchases such as airline tickets and rental cars."

Too much "noise" was precisely our problem, pre-9/11: U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies were inundated with too many warnings, threats, and rumors of war. The lesson of the Rowley memo, and of the Arizona FBI agent whose warnings effectively predicted the attacks, is that we already had "total information awareness" prior to 9/11 – but no one to put the pieces of the puzzle together. This DARPA project would increase the noise level, without introducing any element of viable selectivity.

Given "total information awareness" pre-9/11, analysts would have had to select out all Middle Easterners who had been granted visas to study aviation in the U.S. but authorities never anticipated the form of the attacks, and were convinced the blow would be aimed at American facilities abroad. The human intelligence factor was missing. Far from arguing for the souped up, chrome-plated, hi-tech approach favored by the technocrats, the lessons of 9/11 point to a revival of the good old-fashioned techniques of traditional spycraft, such as infiltration, the cultivation of informants, bribery, etc.

Consider the possible uses of "total information awareness" – intercepting email, wiretapping phone conversations, tracking every move of the computer mouse, each and every economic transaction – and consider all the really efficient uses to which such information could be put: blackmail, thievery, economic regulation and tax collection come immediately to mind. Finding terrorists comes somewhere around last on the list, just above creating trust and defending the Constitution.

I won't bother dumping on Poindexter when John Sutherland did it so well in the Guardian, except to say that the head of the Information Awareness Office is the perfect incarnation of the techno-totalitarian high priest. Poindexter is a convicted liar and professional flim-flam man, who usurped the powers of the President and decided that he had better run American foreign policy for the good of the nation, naturally enough. He got off on a technicality and has now been assigned the task of protecting us from terrorism.

I feel safer already. Don't you?


My talk at Berkeley, sponsored by Cal Libertarians, was great fun. Thanks to the promotional work done by the members of this very active and lively group of young libertarians, we had a substantial crowd and a very interesting one. The question-and-answer period was the best part, or at least I thought so, with students including a gaggle of College Republicans – challenging but also elaborating on some of the points I made. I was particularly gratified that several questions directly addressed issues raised in some of my past columns: hey, these guys (and gals!) are regular readers! What more can a writer ask, or want?

The student movement against the war is growing, in numbers and intensity, and libertarians are generating excitement on campus for the first time since the late 1970s. I'm really excited by our campus outreach program: this is clearly having an impact. Whenever I think the cause of preserving our liberty is lost, and the looming threat of, say, Poindexterism is about to engulf us, something like this happens to renew my faith in the future.

Hey, you student activists! Psssst! Wanna cause some trouble on your campus, and get the rad-lib lefties and the College Republicans in a lather and thinking? Get in on the action by clicking here.

– Justin Raimondo

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Justin Raimondo is the editorial director of He is also the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement (with an Introduction by Patrick J. Buchanan), (1993), and Into the Bosnian Quagmire: The Case Against U.S. Intervention in the Balkans (1996). He is an Adjunct Scholar with the Ludwig von Mises Institute, in Auburn, Alabama, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Libertarian Studies, and writes frequently for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard.