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01/29/2004 Archived Entry: "Privacy Villain of the Week"

Smile! If nothing else, it confuses *them* -- Clay Bennett's latest cartoon "National Debt," and Dana Summers' "Martian pest Control." Mark Fiore's two latest animations are also worth a gander: "State of the Union" and "The Rovers" [on Democratic candidates].

To pick up where I left off yesterday...Thanks to Lee K. for reminding me that "NASA-Northwest" were awarded the prize for Privacy Villain of the Week back in August 22, 2002. (The Privacy Villain of the Week and Privacy Hero of the Month are projects of the National Consumer Coalition's Privacy Group.) The discrepancy is the frequency is undoubtedly because there are currently more villains than heroes.

I guess you just can't keep a good villain down! Because "NASA-Northwest redux" is also Villain of the Week for January 23, 2004! The press release reads:

"After two years, the public has finally learned that Northwest Airlines did indeed give the National Aeronautics and Space Administration sensitive consumer data for use in a bizarre research program that combined data-mining and "brain-monitoring" technology. There was a more naive time when it seemed the 21st-century total federal takeover of airport security would merely involve swarms of overpaid, un-fireable federal employees harassing hapless harried travelers with interminable baggage and body searches. But the dangers of "mind-reading" technology didn't occur to even the most strident skeptic. Or did it? Maybe we need to ask NASA.

It was revealed back in 2002 that scientists from NASA asked Northwest Airlines for "system-wide Northwest Airlines passenger data from July, August, and September 2001." The data was to be used in the still-mysterious program the federal space agency was working on with a commercial firm -- the idea was to use both data-mining and "brain-monitoring" technology installed at airport terminals to somehow identify "threats." The proposed brain-monitoring technology would detect EEG and ECG signals from the brain and heart and then have that data analyzed by software, in combination with previously-floated plans to cross-reference passengers' travel history, credit history, and other information from hundreds or even thousands of databases as part of the Computer-Aided Passenger Pre-Screening (CAPPS) program.

In a press release, Robert Pearce, the Director of NASA's Strategy and Analysis Division, disavowed the report, assuring the populace that "NASA does not have the capability to read minds, nor are we suggesting that would be done." Yet another NASA spokesman, Herb Schlickenmaier, confirmed that reading the brainwaves and heart rates of airline passengers was a goal of NASA's -- the thinking being that such data combined with body temperature and eye-flicker rate could make a sort of super-lie detector. However, the PowerPoint presentation delivered by NASA to Northwest in December, said NASA has "Non-invasive neuro-electric sensors under development as a collaborative venture between NASA Ames and commercial partner." This contradicts the NASA statement that "We have not approved any research in this area." If this is how NASA assembles policy, it's little wonder their hardware assembly has a dismal track record.

Does the tweezer brigade really need a weapon of this magnitude? And could it really work? What of those who simply fear flying, or being frisked, or being forced to drink their own breast milk? How often will NASA's scanners confuse such brain waves with those of terrorists?

The federal travel checkpoints are rapidly moving past inconvenient farce and into something more sinister. Instead of mandating security procedures, bailing out airlines that failed in that area, and then taking over the whole system themselves, the federal government should back off and let airlines assume the full costs of security failure as well as the benefits of respectful treatment of travelers. Consumers can subject themselves to full-body-and-brain scans, opt for Concealed Carry Air, or choose something in between, weighing privacy, security, comfort, convenience and cost for themselves. Such individual choice and flexibility has never been the hallmark of the centralized, goal-oriented space agency. The folks at NASA have apparently been so successful in their quest to quash private-sector competition in space travel, that they feel free to use the tax dollars of those they've left planet-bound to sift through travel data and cook up hare-brained mind-reading schemes. And at least one airline gladly helped them do so. If that doesn't make for Privacy Villainy, nothing does."


Thanks to Gordon P. for letting me eavesdrop on his email discussions of technology. Re: the newly announced flexible electronic displays that can be rolled into a tube with a 2 cm diameter and may eventually make it possible to tuck under your arm a convenient e-newspaper that updates itself, Gordon writes, "I'd seen earlier research on this concept (it made the cover of _Nature_ a few years ago), but hadn't seen much on it since then... It's nice to see that progress on this "electronic paper" continues, although it looks like it still has a ways to go before it can challenge print. (If I haven't botched the calculation, I estimate they are getting resolutions of only about 30 dpi: Better than a FAX, and comparable to a computer screen --- but still not up to "laser printer" quality... :-( Still, we may yet see Arthur C. Clarke's "newspads" from _2001_ --- albeit a decade or so late... :-T"

Also eavesdropping:
Steve C. (quoting Groklaw in a discussion of OSS Software)..."Remember, Amateurs built the Ark, Professionals built the Titanic."
Gordon P..."The problem isn't so much with 'professionals, as with 'professional-ISM.' The former is simply trying make a living doing something one is hopefully good at and/or enjoys. The latter is a pseudo-religion of 'certification' wherein a forced and arbitrary balkanization of human skills into neat HR classifications is imposed from above for the convenience of managers, to create an _illusion_ of 'quality' and 'control.' Or, as JMW Slack noted in his semi-autobiographical memoir 'Egg and Ego'. "Since the administration cannot measure what is important, they instead devote all their time and energy to making important what is measurable..."


There was a window of opportunity in the storm front which we used to hop into town and stock up on all the necessaries of life: creamer for the coffee, Buffalo chicken wings, soda... Thank God we take vitamins! We are keeping the air tight stove roaring and, in turn, it keeps the house toasty. It still amazes me that a relatively small and controlled fire in the middle of a large house can maintain such comfort. The walls near the air tight are warm to the touch and radiate gently. The heat it produces seems to penetrate flesh and bone in a manner more friendly than baseboards. So...with the birdfeeders full, the animals restless, food (literally) falling from an overpacked fridge when the door opens, new DVDs, a fresh jigsaw puzzle...we've *in* for the next few days! Hope you are as happy...


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