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The Bush Panopticon: Six Degrees of Domination from the PATRIOT Act

Well, the outlaw Bush regime--surely not excessive rhetoric, with so many Republicans indicted--is having the FBI build a panopticon, using the Patriot [cough] Act as their excuse. (WaPo, The "FBI's Secret Scrutiny: In Hunt for Terrorists, Bureau Examines Records of Ordinary Americans") What's a panopticon?

The concept of the [panopticon's] design is to allow an observer to observe (-opticon) all (pan-) prisoners without the prisoners being able to tell if they are being observed or not, thus conveying a "sentiment of an invisible omniscience":

Right. Jeebus, I thought these guys were supposed to be Christians--isn't "invisible omniscience" up to, well, not mere mortal being like FBI agents and our extremely legitimate elected President?

But heck, the impulse to social control is universal; and now that the Republicans have systematically dismantled our Constitutional system of checks and balances, they're giving their base impulses free rein in the form of FBI National Security Letters. No surprises here.

The surprise: By the math of the "Six Degrees of Separation" theory, the Republicans really are going to end up surveilling everybody. And about everything. They really are building a Panopticon; it's not a metaphor or a rhetorical flight. Read on:

A little background on "Six Degrees" theory:

Stanley Milgram's "Six Degrees of Separation" theory is a (well-tested) theory about social relationships; code implementing it has been patented, and it's the formalism that underlies technologies like friendster. You may have played the "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" game, which demonstrates the theory in game form, in the movie industry. Briefly, the Six Degrees theory states that:

[A]nyone on earth can be connected to any other person on the planet through a chain of acquaintances that has no more than five intermediaries.

(This idea has popularized in Malcolm Gladwell's best seller, Tipping Point.

Now, let's look at the Bush Panopticon in the light of Six Degrees theory.
Here's what WaPo has to say today. First, the nature of the National Security Letter, and how the Bush administration has broadened its reach:

"National security letters," created in the 1970s for espionage and terrorism investigations, originated as narrow exceptions in consumer privacy law, enabling the FBI to review in secret the customer records of suspected foreign agents. The Patriot Act, and Bush administration guidelines for its use, transformed those letters by permitting clandestine scrutiny of U.S. residents and visitors who are not alleged to be terrorists or spies.

The FBI now issues more than 30,000 national security letters a year, according to government sources, a hundredfold increase over historic norms. The letters -- one of which can be used to sweep up the records of many people -- are extending the bureau's reach as never before into the telephone calls, correspondence and financial lives of ordinary Americans.

Issued by FBI field supervisors, national security letters do not need the imprimatur of a prosecutor, grand jury or judge. They receive no review after the fact by the Justice Department or Congress. The executive branch maintains only statistics [Yeah, right], which are incomplete and confined to classified reports. The Bush administration defeated legislation and a lawsuit to require a public accounting, and has offered no example in which the use of a national security letter helped disrupt a terrorist plot.

And we already know that the Bush administration will use the slightest success in the "War on Terror" whenever Bush needs a bump in the polls. So, don't you think that if the Bush Panopticon had caught anyone, there would already have been press releases and a photo-op?

The burgeoning use of national security letters coincides with an unannounced decision to deposit all the information ["transactional records"] they yield into government data banks -- and to share those private records widely, in the federal government and beyond. In late 2003, the Bush administration reversed a long-standing policy requiring agents to destroy their files on innocent American citizens, companies and residents when investigations closed. Late last month, President Bush signed Executive Order 13388, expanding access to those files for "state, local and tribal" governments and for "appropriate private sector entities," which are not defined.

Hmm... Appropriate private sector entities... Like, say, Wackenhut? Nah. Crazy talk. The Republicans would never privatize domestic surveillance! Let's be reasonable!

Senior FBI officials acknowledged in interviews that the proliferation of national security letters results primarily from the bureau's new authority to collect intimate facts about people who are not suspected of any wrongdoing>... Casual or unwitting contact with a suspect -- a single telephone call, for example -- may attract the attention of investigators and subject a person to scrutiny about which he never learns.

So, how far does the "contact" extend? One degree? Or... six degrees? That is, to everyone?

A national security letter cannot be used to authorize eavesdropping or to read the contents of e-mail [Yeah, right] . But it does permit investigators to trace revealing paths through the private affairs of a modern digital citizen. The records [a National Security Letter] yields describe where a person makes and spends money, with whom he lives and lived before, how much he gambles, what he buys online, what he pawns and borrows, where he travels, how he invests, what he searches for and reads on the Web, and who telephones or e-mails him at home and at work.

To establish the "relevance" of the information they seek, agents face a test so basic it is hard to come up with a plausible way to fail. A model request for a supervisor's signature, according to internal FBI guidelines, offers this one-sentence suggestion: "This subscriber information is being requested to determine the individuals or entities that the subject has been in contact with during the past six months."

So, how far does the "contact" extend? One degree? Or... six degrees, to everyone?

Ready access to national security letters allows investigators to employ them routinely for "contact chaining."

So, how far does the "contact chaining" extend? One degree? Or... six degrees? To everyone?

"Starting with your [alleged] bad guy and his telephone number and looking at who he's calling, and [then] who they're calling," the number of people surveilled "goes up exponentially," acknowledged Caproni, the FBI's general counsel.

As it must! The numbers tell the story; that's the math of the Six Degrees theory of social networking. Which even the FBI recognizes:

But Caproni said it would not be rational for the bureau to follow the chain too far. "Everybody's connected" if investigators keep tracing calls "far enough away from your targeted [alleged] bad guy," she said. "What's the point of that?"

Oh, OK. Now we're trusting the "rationality" of the FBI. I feel so much better!

But seriously: How does the FBI every know that they've gone "far enough away"? The answer is, they can't, and there's no incentive for them to stop:

[National security letters] receive no review after the fact by the Justice Department or Congress.

So, there's positive feedback to trace as many contacts as possible. And there's no negative impact at all. Which is, indeed, the recipe for exponential growth of collection. And they never throw anything away:

Ashcroft's new order was that "the FBI shall retain" all records it collects and "may disseminate" them freely among federal agencies. The same order directed the FBI to develop "data mining" technology to probe for hidden links among the people in its growing cache of electronic files. According to an FBI status report, the bureau's office of intelligence began operating in January 2004 a new Investigative Data Warehouse, based on the same Oracle technology used by the CIA. The CIA is generally forbidden to keep such files on Americans.

Not only do they never throw anything away, they keep analyzing it:

One point is to fill government data banks for another investigative technique. That one is called "link analysis," a practice Caproni would neither confirm nor deny. Data mining intensifies the impact of national security letters, because anyone's personal files can be scrutinized again and again without a fresh need to establish relevance. The composite picture of a person which emerges from transactional information is more telling than the direct content of your speech," said Woods, the former FBI lawyer. "That's certainly not been lost on the intelligence community and the FBI."

Surely "free speech" would include "commercial speech" by citizens? I mean, under the kind of Constitutional government we once had? Just a thought.

Ashcroft's new guidelines allowed the FBI for the first time to add to government files consumer data from commercial providers such as LexisNexis and ChoicePoint Inc. Previous attorneys general had decided that such a move would violate the Privacy Act. In many field offices, agents said, they now have access to ChoicePoint in their squad rooms.

Of course, the corporations will betray you at the drop of a hat:

Resistance to national security letters is rare. Most of them are served on large companies in highly regulated industries, with business interests that favor cooperation. The in-house lawyers who handle such cases, said Jim Dempsey, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, "are often former prosecutors -- instinctively pro-government but also instinctively by-the-books." National security letters give them a shield against liability to their customers.

Let's review. Using a National Security Letter:>=

1. The FBI can collect information on one individual, that individual's contacts, those individual's contacts, all the way out to Six Degrees.

2. The FBI can get any information it wants, with no review or oversight.

3. The FBI "shall" store this information permanently.

4. The FBI can use this information to build a "model" of any individual through data mining and transactional analysis

5. Do the math, using conservative estimates 30,0000 National letters (above) * 10 years * 10 contacts (as above) * 10 of their contacts * 10 of their contacts (i.e., three Degrees of Seperation) = 300,000,000.

So, in 10 years at the outside, just doing the math, the FBI could have a complete permanent record of every citizen, including behavior models based on consumer purchases from transactional analysis.

I can see how a theocracy would find this very useful--it sure would help with tithing--but it's hard to see what use a free society would have for this. Eh? So, if the Republican's have their way, we'll shortly be living in a very small world indeed...

NOTE Oh, I forgot. There's just a tiny exception. The real world never conforms to theory in every little detail. The "observers" running the Panopticon? They'll indeed be able to see us, and even be six degrees away. But we won't be able to see them. Sorry.

UPDATE AP (and, of course, Biden (D-MBNA)) get this story completely wrong. The story is not the 30,000 number at all. It's the social networking aspect of the plan--contacts of contacts of contacts--that leads to exponential growth. And its the permanent storage and data mining that leads to... Well, the Panopticon. When will cash be illegal, I wonder?

UPDATE Welcome, fellow members of Glenn Greenwald's rabid fan base.

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