Big brother gaining too much support

Mildred Ames’ science fiction classic “Anna to the Infinite Power” depicts a future in which citizens must obtain a government computer’s permission for every excursion outside their homes. The book’s premise once seemed far-fetched, even ridiculous. But as terrorism and war make the public receptive to a strong government setting everything right again, expansions of government power that once seemed unimaginable are becoming real possibilities.

Applied Systems Intelligence of Roswell, Ga., is developing a massive software system called KARNAC (Knowledge Aided Retrieval in Activity Context), which the company claims can help predict terrorist attacks. The software will be capable of sifting through information from driver’s licenses, criminal records, gun registrations, the Internet, newspapers, county records and private sources such as car rentals and hotel reservations. The software then looks for patterns supposedly indicative of terrorist activities – essentially tracking every person entered into its database and seeing who looks shady.

For example, if someone purchased explosive materials, rented a truck and then booked a hotel room near a government building, KARNAC could identify that pattern and report it to police. This technology would give itself readily to abuses infinitely greater than those already plaguing police databases (Daily editorial, Aug. 17) and make the futuristic novels of authors such as Ames and Ray Bradbury seem frighteningly prescient.

A CBS News poll last week found 79 percent of Americans say the nation will have to give up freedoms to be safe from terrorism, the same percentage the survey found immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks and similar to the 61 percent who told the Los Angeles Times erosion of civil liberties is a necessary sacrifice. Despite perpetual lip service to the ideals enshrined in the Bill of Rights, majorities of Americans believe the government should have broader power to track citizens’ Web surfing, read private e-mail, tap phone lines and monitor cell phone conversations, the Times found. A majority believe criticizing the president’s military decisions is unacceptable, and only 58 percent say criticizing his domestic policies is acceptable, according to CBS.

Meanwhile, 70 percent in the Times poll said police should be able to randomly stop people fitting the “theoretical description of a terrorist.” Read: racial profiling. The nonpartisan media-information group Public Agenda found 58 percent believe Arab-Americans should undergo special security checks before being allowed on a plane, and nearly half said they should be required to carry special identification.

The vision of KARNAC computers analyzing every moment of our lives while citizens shrug and reply “necessity” – which William Pitt called “the argument of tyrants and the creed of slaves” – to every abuse of that information, inspires feelings of, in a word, terror. That irony should not be lost on us.