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EDITIONS
Thursday, 12 December, 2002, 05:29 GMT
US eyes Big Brother plan
Still from Minority Report
The system in Minority Report goes horribly wrong
BBC Washington correspondent Justin Webb reports on a Pentagon project looking into ways of monitoring everything everyone does, as part of its war against terror.
In the film Minority Report, Tom Cruise heads a futuristic police team who have the technology to spot people who intend to commit serious crimes before the crime itself takes place.

The premise might seem far-fetched but it could be closer than we think.

In the Pentagon in Washington, a team is working on plans to collect as much information about every single aspect of everyone in America as they can.

This includes everything from doctor's records to bank deposits, e-mail to travel tickets, phone conversations to magazine subscriptions.

The reason, according to the Under Secretary of Defense Pete Aldridge, is to catch people intending to carry out terrorist crimes.

"The bottom line is that this is an important research project to determine the feasibility of using certain transactions and events to discover and respond to terrorists before they act."

Willing public

Backers of the project, known as Total Information Awareness, admit that it sounds Orwellian.

This is a technology-intensive approach that assumes if you have enough data you can produce clear conclusions

Mark Rotenberg, Epic
A reluctant supporter of the Pentagon's plans is Frank Gaffney, a former assistant defence secretary.

He says that it would only take one more terrorist attack and public support is assured.

"At that point there will not only be a willingness to submit to those sorts of infringement but a demand that they be infringed upon in the hope of trying to protect us.

"If there were no war on terror, this is not something that we would want to do."

Not everyone though is convinced, particularly since the man heading the Pentagon team has a dubious past.

Hi-tech doubts

Total Information Awareness is the baby of Admiral John Poindexter.

Pentagon following September 11 attacks
Pentagon has been rebuilt since the attacks
As an adviser to former President Reagan, he sold arms to Iran and using the money to fund the Nicaraguan contras.

Most opponents, though, focus on the wider question of what Admiral Poindexter is trying to achieve and how likely it is to fail.

Mark Rotenberg monitors government attempts at surveillance and snooping. He believes hi-tech solutions are often the ones with the highest rate of failure.

"This is a technology-intensive approach that assumes if you have enough data you can produce clear conclusions," he said.

"We went through a period of time recently in Washington with the sniper attacks when everyone was looking for a white truck.

"We could have had a computer database running profiles of every white truck owner in the country to try to decide which of them was the sniper. In fact, the answer was that none of them were."

The white van was found to be a false lead in the infamous Washington sniper case.

In the film Minority Report things go horribly wrong with the system.

Many in Washington are predicting that this real-life scheme, if it ever got off the ground, would lead to hi-tech chaos and failure.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Gillian Ni Cheallaigh
"They want to monitor everything everyone does all the time"
See also:

25 Nov 02 | Americas
25 Nov 02 | Americas
22 Nov 02 | Business
17 Oct 01 | Science/Nature
10 Oct 01 | Americas
10 Aug 02 | Technology
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