Deborah Amos: From American Public Media, this is No Place to Hide. I'm Deborah Amos.
Kevin Morrison: Address, telephone number ...
In the 1990s, the data industry mushroomed. Vast computer networks quietly gathered staggering amounts of personal information about virtually every American adult.
Morrison: ... driving records, real estate records ...
Richard Smith: That our lives are being recorded. It's like ... these electronic diaries are being kept by all these other people.
After the 9/11 attacks, national security officials were hunting for potential terrorists.
John Poindexter: Their stated objective is to destroy the United States.
So they formed new partnerships with data companies.
James Dempsey: It's an electronic door-to-door search.
Johnnie Lockett Thomas: We have a tendency to make lists, and it's getting worse, ... and somehow, when we don't know anything else to do, you make lists.
In the coming hour, No Place to Hide, a journey inside the new surveillance society, from American RadioWorks and the Center for Investigative Reporting. First, this news update.
Amos: This is an American RadioWorks documentary: No Place to Hide. I'm Deborah Amos.
It was six months to the day after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In a solemn ceremony on the White House lawn, President Bush promised to hunt down those who would plot to kill Americans.
Bush: Every terrorist must be made to live as an international fugitive ... with no place to settle or organize, no place to hide.
After the shock of 9/11, the U.S. government was determined to prevent any future attacks. That meant dramatic new intelligence efforts - overseas and at home.
The president's phrase, "no place to hide," unintentionally echoes a warning by another politician a generation earlier.
NBC host Bill Monroe: Our guest today on Meet the Press is Senator Frank Church, Democrat of Idaho.
In 1975, Senator Frank Church headed a congressional commission that investigated widespread abuses by U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Church warned about the government's power to turn surveillance technologies on its own citizens if it chose to.
Frank Church: No American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything - telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn't matter. There would be no place to hide.
In fact, Senator Church couldn't have imagined the power of information and surveillance technologies available to the government three decades later. And he wouldn't live to see how aggressively government would embrace such tools in a time of fear about national security - tools to watch and assess American citizens - all of us - in order to protect us.
This hour, No Place to Hide, a project of American RadioWorks and the Center for Investigative Reporting. Robert O'Harrow and John Biewen look inside America's emerging surveillance society.
[Sounds of the road from inside a moving car]
O'Harrow: Well now we're about to drive under the great arch that says Walt Disney World, and there's Mickey and Minnie Mouse and Donald Duck, Goofy.
John Biewen: This is John Biewen. Robert O'Harrow is a reporter for the Washington Post. He's on the road researching a book. I've joined with him on a kind of quest.
O'Harrow: We want to explore some striking changes in our society - the many ways in which Americans are now monitored.
Biewen: And to consider how mindful we should be about traditional American values like privacy and autonomy. We start in Florida.
O'Harrow: In some ways Disney World is America, and I'm curious about the kind of technology that they're using to protect this space.
Biewen: As a cultural symbol, Disney might be an attractive target for terrorists. In 2003 the federal government created no-fly zones over Disney World and California's Disneyland. They were the first privately-owned places in the country to get that protection, otherwise reserved for things like chemical weapons plants.
O'Harrow: We're driving up to a pink and blue tollbooth, in effect.
Biewen: At the entrance, you could almost miss the surveillance cameras attached to the booth. They're camouflaged in Disney style.
[Window goes down]
O'Harrow: Hi. What are these cameras for?
Booth guy: Security. One facing out; one facing the other direction.
O'Harrow: Oh, so it can get your license plate. It's nice they're painted pink. [Guy laughs uneasily.] It's not threatening, right? Thanks.
Biewen: The nation is sprouting surveillance cameras by the thousands - in offices, homes, on street corners and highways. And like the cameras at Disney, most are installed by businesses, not the government. But cameras are just the most obvious form of surveillance. What's really opening the windows of our lives and allowing others to peer in is what's been called the "data revolution."
O'Harrow: I'm sitting in the alcove of Hank Asher's kitchen. Out back is a pool that looks like something out of a David Hockney painting.
Biewen: Before September 11, 2001, Hank Asher was in semi-retirement, spending a lot of time at his sprawling Boca Raton mansion or fishing off the coast of South Florida.
O'Harrow: Hank Asher himself is wearing some shorts and Docksiders and a t-shirt with the name of his boat on it.
Biewen: Asher is a paunchy man with big forearms and graying hair. Two days after 9/11, he was at home in Boca Raton following the news.
Hank Asher: And I was standing six feet behind you at that countertop right there, doing the same thing that most Americans were doing: I was drinking.
O'Harrow: Unlike most Americans, Asher was thinking about how he could identify the attackers - or anyone who might be planning another strike.
Biewen: Asher made his fortune in the 1990s building ever more powerful computers and software programs - tools for collecting and packaging facts about virtually every adult in America. He sold dossiers to insurance companies, police, private investigators, reporters, and many others. In 1998, Asher founded a company that came to be known as Seisint, short for "seismic intelligence."
O'Harrow: There in his kitchen, martini in hand, Asher turned to a friend, a veteran police investigator, Bill Shrewsbury.
Asher: And I said, "Bill, I know how to find these guys." And so, us 50-year-old guys were running across [laughs] my house into my bedroom, which is about a 100-foot run, like we're children.
O'Harrow: The two men raced to a computer in Asher's bedroom that links to his company's supercomputer. Furiously writing code, he told the computer to search through oceans of data for people likely to be terrorists. Among other attributes, he says he selected for young, male Muslims.
Asher: No names had been released; no anything had been done. But out of my database of over 450 million people that either have lived in this country or passed through this country, I got down to a list of 419 through an artificial intelligence algorithm that I had written. Marwan Yosef al-Shehi was on my list. He flew the plane into the second tower.
Biewen: Asher says, though he didn't know it yet, five of the men on his list were 9/11 hijackers. The next day Asher sent the list of names to the FBI, Secret Service and Florida state police. On Sunday, September 16, an FBI agent and assistant U.S. attorney visited Asher's office and looked over his shoulder as he ran more searches.
Asher: And as they asked me questions, I would actually run what they were asking in front of them. And the FBI guy would come out of his seat about six inches and say, "Can you print that? Can you print that?"
O'Harrow: Within a week of the 9/11 attacks, a makeshift federal task force had formed at Seisint, turning the company into an intelligence outpost in the brand new war on terror.
Asher: We got Secret Service guys, we got INS guys, ... between four and six FBI, and then probably about ten of my scientists, technologists, programmers and myself.
O'Harrow: The raw material for their work: the names, addresses, interests and associations of virtually every adult in the United States.
Biewen: Hank Asher didn't set out to be a player in protecting the nation's security. For years the data industry he helped revolutionize was just a very lucrative business. Data companies vacuumed up information about Americans, then processed and sold it for marketing, fraud detection and background checks.
O'Harrow: We've just walked into a dim room that serves as the command center for part of ChoicePoint's operations.
Biewen: We tour a data center in Boca Raton that was once part of Hank Asher's first company, DBT. ChoicePoint, a Georgia-based company, bought DBT in 2000 for $470 million in stock. ChoicePoint acquired dozens of smaller data companies as it grew into an industry giant. Workers sitting at computer screens can look through a glass wall at a warehouse-sized room filled with computer servers.
O'Harrow: The servers that we're looking at look like banks of lockers, some of them; others are the size of a large refrigerator. They're set in rows that extend to a wall on the far end of the room.
Kevin Morrison: Currently, ChoicePoint has access to more than seventeen billion public records.
O'Harrow: Company officials Kevin Morrison and Buddy Meseroll tick off types of data gathered by the company's public records division.
Morrison: Address, telephone number, social security number, driving records, criminal records, ... real estate records, business license records.
Buddy Meseroll: Boating license.
Morrison: Boating license.
Meseroll: I mean you can just go on. Fishing, hunting license if we wanted that.
Morrison: Incorporation records.
Biewen: ChoicePoint buys other kinds of data from private sources: identity information from credit reports; product warranties and customer surveys; some phone records. They even maintain a retail industry blacklist of employees caught shoplifting.
O'Harrow: ChoicePoint's Kevin Morrison says if the company's 250 terabytes of data were printed on ordinary paper and the pages laid end to end,
Morrison: It would extend twenty-one million miles. That's roughly seventy-seven round trips to the moon.
Biewen: That number grows every day. Around the clock, rivers of new and updated information about Americans flow into computer servers at ChoicePoint and other data companies. At the same time, many hundreds of ChoicePoint's customers may be looking at chunks of that data as they request it from their far-flung computers.
O'Harrow: Every time you apply for a job, order clothing from a catalog, or get credit, it's likely that ChoicePoint or one of its competitors is helping to grease the process - or stop it cold. The data companies do so by zipping information about you to the company you're dealing with, often within a split second.
Biewen: Increasingly, ChoicePoint's clients include law enforcement and national security officials. In some ways, it serves as a private intelligence operation for the government.
Morrison: Anything that we couldn't answer, we'll be happy to.
Biewen: Leaving through ChoicePoint's lobby, you pass an award prominently displayed on the wall.
O'Harrow: This is a Federal Bureau of Investigation letter of appreciation that ChoicePoint got for exceptional service in the public interest in September 2001. It's the same sort of reward that other companies have received for helping out after the attacks.
Biewen: ChoicePoint and other data companies, including Hank Asher's Seisint, donated their services to the government in the days after 9/11. But those informal relationships soon gave way to contracts. In ChoicePoint's case, a $67 million deal with the Justice Department. The company's profits soared in the year after 9/11, and so did the salary of its Chief Executive, Derek Smith. Smith was paid $20 million in 2002, a 50-percent raise over the previous year.
O'Harrow: In a culture that cherishes independence, autonomy and privacy, there's been surprisingly little meaningful debate about these new partnerships.
[Manhattan street noise]
O'Harrow: We take a walk in New York City with Richard Smith. He's a former computer programmer, now an expert and consultant on data privacy issues.
Richard Smith: I think the first thing we have to say is, this is something new, something different - that our lives are being recorded. It is like ... these electronic diaries are being kept by all these other people. ... That's new territory; we haven't been there before.
Biewen: Commercial databases don't just hold records detailing who you are, your interests and health problems, and how much money you have to spend. Increasingly, we're using electronic gadgets that actually track our movements.
Smith: That are very much part of our life now, that we even take for granted. We even know they're there but we don't kind of think of them as surveillance networks.
O'Harrow: On a Manhattan street corner, Smith points out a neglected, old-fashioned payphone. Drop in a quarter and the machine leaves a record that a call has been made, but it doesn't know who made it.
Smith: Now with the cell phone, that's all out the window. This phone here is, you know, tied to your bank account, tied to your identity. The location of it - I don't see any cell phone antennas around here, but the cell phone network tracks you all the time. And, it can identify your position down to about a half a mile, maybe to a few blocks here in the city.
Biewen: Smith's list of sensors goes on: ATM machines, credit card readers, the Internet, electronic fingerprint readers, those convenient tollbooths that sense transponders on cars. Smith stresses this is not the surveillance society George Orwell imagined. We feed these sensors voluntarily, just as we trade off our personal information for an array of conveniences and discounts.
O'Harrow: The data industry emphasizes those trade-offs and rightly considers itself a central part of our information-rich economy. Jennifer Barrett is an executive with Acxiom, one of the world's biggest collectors and processors of personal information. Acxiom mainly helps companies with marketing and customer service. At her office in Little Rock, Arkansas, Barrett argues most Americans love what the data revolution does for them, without knowing how it works.
Jennifer Barrett: I have a personal belief that the consumer really doesn't want to know. I don't care ... how the electricity gets to that light switch over on the wall. But when I punch that light switch, I want the lights in this room to come on, and I want [snaps fingers] them to come on pretty quick. ... And I think the value that information brings to the consumer is a little bit like that.
Biewen: But since September 11, 2001, Acxiom, ChoicePoint and their competitors have taken on a new role as contractors in the war on terror at home. Again, technology expert Richard Smith.
[Manhattan street noise]
Smith: It's one thing that if Acxiom predicts you're going to buy, you know, such and such a product and somebody sends out an ad to you - junk mail piece or a telemarketer calls, and you say, "No." It's quite different thing when law enforcement comes to your house and says, "We think you're gonna - You're a danger; we're going to start watching you" or something like this.
Amos: Coming up, some history of domestic spying abuses - decades ago and in this decade.
Chris Pyle: It wasn't that these people were trying to create a police state. They were very nice, decent human beings.
I'm Deborah Amos. You're listening to No Place to Hide, from American RadioWorks. Our program continues in just a moment, from American Public Media.
Amos: This is No Place to Hide, from American RadioWorks. I'm Deborah Amos. In the 1960s and 70s, the FBI, under J. Edgar Hoover, spied on thousands of Americans whose politics were considered suspect. It worked actively to disrupt not only violent, radical organizations, but also law-abiding, civil rights and anti-war groups. Driven by crime-fighting and anti-communist zeal, Hoover's orders violated the Constitution and the expectation of law-abiding citizens to be left alone.
There's wide agreement that after 9/11, the government needed to do a better job of identifying threats on American soil through the use of information technology. But since these technologies, in effect, monitor almost everyone, some people worry about the potential for new abuses. John Biewen and Robert O'Harrow continue our report exploring our emerging surveillance society.
[Quiet motor, water]
O'Harrow: I'm on the pier in Fort Lauderdale standing just behind Hank Asher's 65-foot motorboat. [To somebody] Is it OK to go on with these shoes?
Biewen: This is John Biewen with Robert O'Harrow. Hank Asher has made a fortune in the data business, and lives like it - never mind the mansion in Boca Raton.
[Footstep onto boat]
O'Harrow: Asher's fishing boat has four cabins and a gleaming kitchen, satellite Internet and eight phone lines.
Asher: Four thousand horsepower, very fast, very seaworthy.
Biewen: Asher was spending a lot of time on his boat before 9/11. After the attacks, he says he felt called to enlist in the fight against terrorism, offering his powerful data searching system to the government as a weapon. But there's some irony in Hank Asher's new role as a crime-fighting and national security whiz.
O'Harrow: If Asher's supercomputer were used to conduct a background check on Asher himself, it might reveal his association with drug-smugglers. According to confidential Florida police documents and interviews with law enforcement authorities and Asher, in the early 1980s, Asher flew planes to and from Central and South America carrying marijuana and cocaine. He says he regrets that episode of his life and blames it on a hunger for adventure.
Asher: I didn't feel like I had done a crime ... until it occurred to me I had just done a crime. ... I was a criminal. And I can tell you since June of 1982, I have never broken the law.
O'Harrow: Asher was never arrested or charged. He's worked hard to make amends, giving generously to police groups and other charities. He's also given hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to politicians in both major parties.
Biewen: Asher's rehabilitation seemed complete in January of 2003 when he flew to Washington, D.C., for a meeting at the White House. He and a colleague from his company, Seisint, were invited to demonstrate a powerful information system Asher had invented and billed as a counterterrorism tool. The entrepreneurs were escorted by Jeb Bush, the Florida governor and president's brother.
Asher: We were waiting and then all of a sudden the entourage of Dick Cheney and his people, all the Homeland Security people were there. Tom Ridge was there; Mueller came in. We all sat down.
O'Harrow: That is, Robert Mueller, the FBI director. Also at the meeting was Tim Moore, commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and a friend of Hank Asher's.
Asher: Governor Bush started it with saying that Commissioner Moore and FDLE, working, especially with Seisint, have come up with what we feel is a very important tool for this country.
Biewen: The fact that that meeting took place shows how determined government leaders are to use new tools in fighting what they consider a new kind of war. The government knew Hank Asher's history. The Drug Enforcement Administration, among other agencies, had once severed ties with Asher's company, citing allegations of a law-breaking past. Now top law enforcement and national security officials were embracing him.
O'Harrow: In speeches after 9/11, Attorney General John Ashcroft talked about the need to think outside the box while staying within the Constitution. Sitting in his office at the Justice Department, Ashcroft defended the appropriateness of working with a one-time drug smuggler.
John Ashcroft: ... We're very conscious of the responsibility we have to defend the American people from an attack of terrorists. And we are not in the business of disqualifying technology by the author. We are in the business of using technology based on its ability to help the American people.
Biewen: Remember the program Hank Asher created after 9/11, the one that combed through huge criminal and commercial databases to find people with certain telling characteristics? Over the following months, Asher and Seisint developed that program into something eventually dubbed "Matrix."
Asher: Just to run it makes me excited. To know that we built it? Just blows me away. It's a beautiful piece of technology. It's a thousand beautiful pieces of technology connected together in a very smart way.
O'Harrow: What does Matrix do? An investigator sits down at a computer and types in fragments of evidence about a suspect - hair color, a digit or two from a license plate, maybe a history of flying to a certain foreign country. Within seconds, up pops a driver's license photo along with a rich dossier: all the suspect's addresses, past and present; the vehicles he's owned; and business and financial information.
Biewen: The company Asher started, Seisint, refused to show the system to reporters, but those who've seen Matrix tend to rave.
Steve Lauer: It certainly is brand new; it certainly has a capability that did not exist before.
Biewen: Steve Lauer is chief of domestic security for the state of Florida. The state teamed with Asher in creating Matrix and promoting it to other state governments. Lauer says what's new about Matrix is how it allows an investigator to dip into vast oceans of both commercial data and police records.
Lauer: It is a tool that allows him to cut to the chase, you know, cut to the core issue of ... the right-size guy, the right kind of background, the right kind of address, and focus on him. And I think that's what blows people away.
O'Harrow: But more than that, Matrix and a growing number of other commercial systems find links among people. So the digital dossier may also include photos and records of the suspect's family and neighbors, even long-forgotten associates. Investigators can tell Matrix to choose suspects based on the kinds of relationships they have - for example, a roommate with a Muslim-sounding name. A human investigator could spend months and never see such links. With Matrix, it takes an instant.
Biewen: Authorities believe this kind of technology could be the key to helping connect the dots. Civil liberties advocates say there's one big problem.
James Dempsey: What it depends upon is millions and billions of bits of information about innocent people engaging in innocent daily activities.
Biewen: James Dempsey heads the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington, D.C. He argues that data mining tools like Matrix, in effect, create new information by giving investigators the power to discern patterns and apply profiles. And they do so by scanning personal records about almost everybody.
Dempsey: It's an electronic door-to-door search.
O'Harrow: Dempsey agrees that Matrix and similar networks can help protect the country. But he says a hodgepodge of laws places too few restraints on the data industry.
Dempsey: What are the limits, what are the standards, the guidelines, the mechanisms for accountability, for redress? How do you even know where to call ... to ask, "What does Matrix have about me?"
Biewen: After Hank Asher's White House meeting in 2003, the Homeland Security and Justice departments granted a combined $12 million to help in the development of Matrix. Another sign of the big future that some predict for Asher's invention: In July of 2004, Lexis-Nexis bought his company, Seisint, for more than three-quarters of a billion dollars. Hank Asher's take: almost $275 million.
O'Harrow: Asher concedes that authorities wanting to, say, harass their political enemies, would have a powerful tool in Matrix.
Asher: When you take somebody with that much power and you have a president or the head of the FBI that would order something like that to be done, my system [chuckles] would just do it faster than the other ones would. I would certainly hope we don't have that type of leadership, and I don't believe we do.
Biewen: The government's quick embrace of tools like Matrix was part of a push to gather and share information among intelligence and law enforcement agencies much more efficiently. This push also relied on dramatically expanded legal powers.
Ashcroft: Our responsibility was to do anything and everything we could under the Constitution to prevent further acts of terrorism.
O'Harrow: Attorney General Ashcroft speaking at New York's Federal Hall in 2003.
Ashcroft: So we fought for the tools necessary to protect the lives and the liberties of the American people. Congress provided these tools in the USA Patriot Act, passed overwhelmingly by bipartisan majorities.
O'Harrow: Congress passed the historic Patriot Act just 45 days after 9/11. With relatively little public debate, lawmakers undid a generation of restraints on the gathering and sharing of domestic intelligence. The act allows the FBI to wiretap American citizens who are not criminal suspects, and enables police to share investigative information with the Central Intelligence Agency.
Biewen: And it makes it easier for investigators to access the trail of data each of us leaves behind every day: travel records, cell phone calls, even books we've bought or checked out at the library. Among the most alluring sources of information for investigators are banks, which are now required to monitor customers on behalf of the government, and the Internet, where we Americans live more and more of our lives.
Les Seagraves: I'm Les Seagraves, assistant general counsel and chief privacy officer for Earthlink, and we're about to go into the Earthlink data center.
O'Harrow: Based in Atlanta, Earthlink is one of the largest Internet service providers, right behind the giants, AOL and Microsoft. It has more than five million customers.
Seagraves: So any incoming and outgoing mail is run through these servers. It's about 100 to 130 million e-mails coming in per day.
O'Harrow: It's part of Seagraves' job to handle subpoenas and court orders from police and national security officials.
Seagraves: Most of the time it's to identify people. They'll have a bit of information, an e-mail address, something that they're looking to identify - who is this, who sent this, you know, who is this person? And those are pretty routine.
Biewen: In other cases, government orders require Seagraves to actually intercept e-mails so authorities can look at their contents. The Patriot Act made it much easier for agents to get data from companies like Earthlink, and to do so secretly under something called FISA, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. So if the government is reading your e-mail, you'll probably never know.
Seagraves: The federal law says that it's a criminal act if I tell you anything about a FISA order that I've gotten.
O'Harrow: So what would happen if you talked about it?
Seagraves: I would probably go to jail. In fact, I've been told by the FBI that I would go to jail.
O'Harrow: Parts of the Patriot Act had broad support - for example, provisions updating wiretap regulations for the cell phone age. But key sections of the law dismantled limits on the monitoring of citizens - limits that Congress created in the 1970s in response to widespread abuses.
Biewen: Chris Pyle teaches law at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. In 1968 he was a young captain, preparing to teach at the Army Intelligence School in Maryland. Another officer gave Pyle a tour of the Army's domestic intelligence headquarters.
Chris Pyle: We got our passes and wound our way down through the maze of rooms inside of it.
Biewen: In one room, Pyle saw a row of Teletype machines chattering away as reports came in from 1,500 Army intelligence agents around the country.
Pyle: These were the agents who normally did security clearances for the Army, but their secondary duty was to monitor dissent.
O'Harrow: As his tour continued, Pyle was astonished to find Army investigators filling file cabinets with dossiers on civil rights activists. They were clipping newspaper stories about people giving anti-war speeches, even monitoring meetings at churches.
Pyle: It was very clear to me that we had just witnessed the essential apparatus of a police state. And it wasn't that these people were trying to create a police state. They were very nice, decent human beings. ... But they were creating a reporting apparatus that would cover millions of Americans engaged in entirely lawful political activity.
Biewen: Pyle later wrote award-winning articles exposing the Army's domestic spying program. Within a few years, congressional investigations revealed more shocking abuses. Under Presidents Johnson and Nixon, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had ordered systematic spying on civil rights organizations. He also used blackmail and smear campaigns to undermine the groups and their leaders.
O'Harrow: But, as Pyle points out, Hoover's agency often relied on nothing more than shoe leather and manila folders.
Pyle: What I investigated back then was bush league and amateur hour. This has changed radically because of the power of computers and telecommunications.
[Coffee beans in roaster]
Biewen: Okay, now this used to be a cafe?
Kerry Appel: Yeah.
Steve Nash: In fact we had ...
O'Harrow: We go to Denver and visit a little shop called the Human Bean. A coffee roaster churns away in the back. The Human Bean has long served as a gathering place for left-wing, political activists.
Nash: I'm Steve Nash. It's nice to meet you. This is my wife, Vicky.
Biewen: Steve Nash is a regular here. He works in construction, installing windows and glass. Nash and his wife, Vicky, led the creation of a police watchdog group called End the Politics of Cruelty.
Nash: Well, actually, we were all a group of activists with the local chapter of Amnesty International who wanted to focus more on local issues here in Denver.
O'Harrow: End the Politics of Cruelty used to hold its monthly meetings at the Human Bean. In February of 2002, someone dropped off a brown envelope at the cafe with Nash's name on it.
Nash: It was like this computer printout [clears throat] that said it was a police file. And, it had my name at the top. And right about three lines under it, it said I belonged to a criminal extremist group called End the Politics of Cruelty. That's how I learned that the police were actually keeping files on my political activities.
Biewen: Someone had also leaked police files to the American Civil Liberties Union. Within days, the Denver "Spyfiles" case was born. The mayor admitted that a police intelligence unit originally created in the early 1950s had snooped on more than 3,000 Denver citizens and 200 groups. In recent years, the unit had wrongly labeled an array of groups and individuals "criminal extremist." These included the American Indian Movement and the pacifist American Friends Service Committee - the Quakers.
Cole Finegan: There are a lot of things about what went on with the Spyfiles that are disturbing to all of us.
O'Harrow: Cole Finegan took over as city attorney after the Spyfiles scandal broke.
Finegan: And I certainly think that a number of these people felt appropriately that their personal liberties were violated.
Biewen: The Denver police appeared tone-deaf to the Bill of Rights, but technology compounded their mistakes dramatically. For decades, the intelligence unit kept its files on index cards. In 2000 the unit decided to go digital. It bought an intelligence software program from yet another technology outfit that few people know about: Orion Scientific, a company run by former defense and intelligence officials.
O'Harrow: Orion offers training for its software, but at a price. The Denver police declined to buy sufficient training. The "criminal extremist" label wrongly given to some political groups was a feature of the Orion software. Steve Nash's wife, Vicky Nash, also had a police file.
Vicky Nash: The program they were using, the technology, had a pop-up menu that had this list on it, and apparently "criminal extremist" was near the top. ... And we were told that some clerk just kept hitting the ENTER key, and one after the other person, organization, was classified as a criminal extremist.
Biewen: In settling a lawsuit filed by the ACLU, Denver officials agreed to stop keeping files on lawful political expression. But thanks to the easy sharing of computer records, the inaccurate data may have gone well beyond Denver. Kerry Appel owns the Human Bean shop. He's part of a group called the Chiapas Coalition, which advocates for Mayan Indians in southern Mexico.
Appel: I saw in my case that they were sharing the information about me with the Joint Terrorist Task Force, the FBI, various state and city police departments, and with the Mexican government. ... Where has it gone and what future threats does that hold for me?
O'Harrow: In fact, it's likely to get even easier for police to share information with other agencies. The Justice Department funded a plan to begin wiring together the nation's 700,000 state and local police officers with federal intelligence officials - possibly with help from the Matrix system. Last fall, anxious to move ahead on homeland security, the U.S. Senate mandated that such a computer network be created.
Amos: You're listening to No Place to Hide from American RadioWorks. Still to come, homeland security and the future of information technologies.
John Poindexter: Once you surface an idea and it's a good idea, ... there's very little that can be done to stop the idea.
Major funding for American RadioWorks comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
To see an interactive timeline on the marriage between government and the data industry, visit our website at americanradioworks.org. You'll also find information on the book, No Place to Hide, by Robert O'Harrow. That's at americanradioworks.org.
Our program continues in just a moment, from American RadioWorks, the documentary unit of American Public Media.
Amos: You're listening to No Place to Hide, an American RadioWorks documentary. I'm Deborah Amos.
Since the 9/11 terror attacks, Americans have heard a stream of reports about new, eye-popping security technologies - tools to rate every airline passenger as a terrorism risk, or to sift through personal data about adults across the country and beyond. How far should the nation go in using your personal information for crime fighting and national security? In this new world, what are the rules? Robert O'Harrow and John Biewen have the final segment in their tour through America's new surveillance society.
Johnnie Lockett Thomas: It began in March of 2002. I was flying from LaGuardia to Boston. My name came up on the computer, and suddenly the ticket agent asked for my ID back.
Biewen: I'm John Biewen. Johnnie Lockett Thomas doesn't look like the kind of person who'd get snared in an electronic net designed to catch terrorists. She's in her early 70s, the widow of a postal executive. She's elegant in gray slacks and silk blouse.
O'Harrow: This is Robert O'Harrow. Mrs. Thomas traveled often to visit her children and grandchildren. On that day in 2002, she was puzzled by the ticket agent's reaction.
Thomas: He called for security, and the security person came in a uniform with her hand on her weapon. And the ticket agent was alarmed enough to say, "No, no, no, no! Mrs. Thomas hasn't done anything! Mrs. Thomas hasn't done anything!" [laughs]
O'Harrow: Mrs. Thomas was delayed and missed her flight, but eventually was allowed to fly. A few days later she went to Boston's Logan Airport to return home to Montana. Again, a ticket agent stopped her.
Thomas: And she said, "I'm not going to embarrass you by taking you away into the back room; I will simply take your ID and go and see what we can do about this." ... And I finally asked why. And she said, "Your name is on the master terrorist list."
Biewen: Actually, a man who'd used a name roughly similar to Thomas' was on the government No-Fly list. "John Thomas Christopher" was the alias of a man charged with murdering his wife and children in Oregon. To computers, the name Johnnie Lockett Thomas was a match, despite noticeable differences between the two people.
Thomas: I think he was 27 years old, Caucasian, six feet tall, blue eyes, blonde hair - reddish blond hair. And, he was already in custody.
O'Harrow: Airports had No-Fly lists before 9/11, but after that day, government agencies added new names by the thousands. The number of people mistakenly stopped at airports has exploded. Those held up include many with Muslim-sounding names, and others with common names like John Thomas and David Nelson.
Thomas: Here's what I travel with now, ... because they suggest I need to carry all these IDs with me. Oh, here we go.
Biewen: Johnnie Lockett Thomas now travels with a big three-ring binder containing, among other documents, her birth certificate and a letter from the FBI saying it's OK to let her fly.
Thomas: I have reason to be afraid. ... We have a tendency to make lists, and it's getting worse and worse and worse, and somehow, when we don't know anything else to do, you make lists.
P.A.: Once again ladies and gentlemen, there are two flights on carousel number six.
Biewen: We visit one of the nation's busiest airports, Orlando International. It's not surprising that airport security took on extreme urgency after September 11th. No-fly lists were just a clunky, stop-gap measure. The government also began work on a far more vast and sophisticated system, one that would piggyback on the private-sector data industry. Federal officials teamed with Acxiom, Lexis-Nexis and other companies to develop a new "computer-assisted, passenger pre-screening program" - CAPPS II for short.
O'Harrow: CAPPS II was designed to start with basic information of the kind you give when you buy a ticket: your name, your address. It would then search rapidly through massive commercial databases, drawing on public and commercial records: home addresses, past and present; auto registration; the existence of a credit file. The goal: to confirm that you're really you, and that you have a history. That is, you're not a terrorist using an alias.
Bill Jennings: I think it's important that the airlines, the airport operator, the federal government, go through some kind of threat analysis.
Biewen: Bill Jennings is executive director of the Orlando Aviation Authority.
O'Harrow: Is that intrusive, every time you fly, if they're doing, sort of checking your rootedness in the community?
Jennings: No, I don't - I don't feel it's intrusive, and again, I think it will become fairly routine in operating in this new post-9/11 environment.
Biewen: But privacy advocates and some members of Congress objected that CAPPS II pried too far into passengers' lives. Last August, with the presidential campaign entering the home stretch, the Bush administration announced it was putting off further testing of CAPPS II until after the election. The program now has a new name: "Secure Flight," and a slogan: "Preserving our Freedoms."
O'Harrow: A more sweeping counterterrorism program went way beyond airport security: the Pentagon program once named "Total Information Awareness." The goal of TIA was stunningly ambitious: to monitor and scan databases worldwide - travel records, sales of chemicals that could be used to make bombs, phone calls and e-mail.
Biewen: The creators of Total Information Awareness at Darpa, the Pentagon's research and development arm, showed poor instincts for public relations. Besides the program's Orwellian-sounding name, they created a logo that featured an all-seeing eye scanning the globe. To run TIA they hired John Poindexter, the former national security adviser in the Reagan administration and a leading figure in the Iran-Contra scandal.
O'Harrow: We went to see Poindexter in Arlington, Virginia.
Poindexter: When you do an R and D project, it is important to be expansive.
O'Harrow: Poindexter says he viewed the mission as a 21st century Manhattan Project.
Poindexter: We are up against an opponent where their stated objective is to destroy the United States.
Biewen: But he stresses he was giving close attention to privacy concerns, looking for ways to prevent the abuse of TIA.
Poindexter: I have this concept of what I call a privacy appliance, ... a device that sits on top of a database of information.
O'Harrow: The device, as envisioned by Poindexter, would place some limits on the intelligence analyst who's looking for information.
Poindexter: The appliance would first check and authenticate who the user is. It would also check the authorization that the user had to ask for this specific kind of information that could be contained in the response to the query.
Biewen: Poindexter says the appliance could allow agents to search for patterns of behavior in the data while blocking the identities of those being monitored, at least in preliminary searches. In any case, Poindexter says Total Information Awareness was only a research and development program. The decision to implement it would have been made by others in Congress or the White House.
O'Harrow: But after reports surfaced about the program and Poindexter's involvement, civil liberties activists and some lawmakers howled. They evoked Big Brother, and said Poindexter couldn't be trusted, given his involvement in Iran-Contra.
Biewen: In 2003, Poindexter resigned and Congress cancelled TIA, which, by then, had been renamed "Terrorism Information Awareness." That ended the story. Or so it seemed.
Brian Sharkey: They all liked it; they all thought it was great. But they didn't want to touch it. Now there's a keen interest in what was done here.
O'Harrow: Brian Sharkey is a former Darpa official; he launched the original concept of Total Information Awareness back in 1999. Now working for a major defense contractor, Sharkey stays in close touch with U.S. intelligence agencies. He says they're taking a closer look now that Poindexter's departure has taken TIA off the front pages.
Sharkey: So I'm briefing folks on, you know, what we were really thinking and doing, and now they're interested in how can they absorb these kinds of thoughts and technical processes into their particular problems.
Biewen: It's not just the federal government that's adopting these dazzling, new, data searching tools. Local cops are now using personal information about Americans almost as routinely as they use their police radios.
[Sounds of people in large hall]
Biewen: Our next stop: Philadelphia, for the annual International Association of Chiefs of Police technology expo.
O'Harrow: I'm in a cavernous hall that's filled - every square foot of it, it seems - with vendors selling high tech gear.
Biewen: Face recognition software, surveillance cameras that see in the dark.
O'Harrow: I'm interested, of course, in the use of data by these folks.
Biewen: Several big information companies have booths: ChoicePoint, whose data center we visited in Boca Raton; Orion Scientific - its intelligence software figured in the Denver Spyfiles scandal; and Hank Asher's former company, Seisint. It's giving closed-door demonstrations of Matrix, the powerful data-analysis system Asher took to the White House.
O'Harrow: Stationed outside the Liberty Ballroom B is a Seisint employee who won't let anybody in who isn't a law enforcement official.
Paul Walker: We have a lot of derogatory information on people - judgments, liens, bankruptcy information.
Biewen: Paul Walker is a salesman for Lexis-Nexis, the company best known for its news and law databases but now a key player in homeland security programs, and the new owner of the Matrix system. Walker shows a police chief from rural Kansas how he could use Lexis-Nexis's services to learn about people quickly.
Jay Reyes: Uh, this is probably a lot larger than what our agency would need.
Walker: OK. Tell you what. I'll have somebody call you and just come out and do a demo, give you a trial.
Walker: If nothing else, give your detectives a test drive.
Biewen: The police chief is Jay Reyes of Fort Scott, Kansas - population, 8,000.
Reyes: Back home sometimes those folks don't understand it. They still get wrapped up over issues of social security number and anything like that.
Biewen: Reyes says he himself has a "worldly" view about the use of personal data in police work.
Reyes: It's kind of a necessary evil, I think.
O'Harrow: How do we make sure that we strike the balance and that the bad cops, or the bad law enforcement or intelligence guys aren't using it in a way that we find intrusive or onerous?
Reyes: I think - I think the sanctions and the punishment when you're caught misusing it have to be very severe. Otherwise, we run the risk of really becoming kind of like a totalitarian state, and that's not good; that's not America.
Biewen: On our travels we meet law enforcement and counterterrorism officials who share Reyes' concerns. Most also say such tools, carefully regulated, are crucial to protecting the nation.
O'Harrow: It seems there's also wide agreement on this: the USA Patriot Act is just one facet of the emerging surveillance society. Some controversial parts of the law expire this year unless Congress votes to extend them - including sections allowing easier access to hotel and bookstore and other business records. Privacy activist James Dempsey.
Dempsey: If the Patriot Act were to completely go away, all of these issues - consolidation of information, sharing of information, the power of the technology - ... would still remain, and the trends would continue unabated.
Biewen: Dempsey points out the government can now get most of the information it would want about almost any adult in America by simply buying it from a company like ChoicePoint, Acxiom or Lexis-Nexis.
Dempsey: The notion that the government has to go out and use legal powers to build some massive surveillance capability, or some massive data collection capability, ... that's so 20th century.
O'Harrow: That's in part because the data industry has actively, and rather successfully, opposed strict government regulations. If you want to know what ChoicePoint or Acxiom or Lexis-Nexis is sharing with its corporate customers or the police about you, no law requires them to tell you.
Biewen: By the end of our journey, one impression stands out: the rapidly expanding role of private-sector information companies in our society and our nation's security. It's not just privacy activists; in interviews, the same lawmakers, police and national security officials who say these tools are necessary, also express unease. On one trip to Washington, D.C., we visit two men: Viet Dinh, the former Justice Department official and a primary author of the Patriot Act, and Senator Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee and a leading voice of dissent on the Patriot Act.
O'Harrow: They disagree on the law, but both Leahy and Dinh say they're troubled by the rapid marriage, since 9/11, between the government and the data industry.
Patrick Leahy: I think if the Congress had the courage to hold real hearings and show where these links are, I think the American public would rise up in arms and say, "Change what you're doing."
Viet Dinh: In a democratic government we should always distrust governmental authority.
Biewen: Viet Dinh.
Dinh: The amount of information that is publicly available to businesses about any individual is mind-boggling. I am not comfortable that we are where we need to be in order to ... circumscribe governmental use of private intelligence. The government alone can jail us, can investigate us, and can deprive us of life and liberty.
O'Harrow: But the threat and fear of terrorism persist. And companies that gather and analyze so many electronic details about us are becoming indispensable to police and intelligence agencies.
Biewen: So these extraordinary changes seem almost sure to gain momentum, driven by this idea: that with enough information about everybody, authorities can discern the many innocent from the few who would destroy us.
Poindexter: One of the remarkable things about ideas ...
O'Harrow: John Poindexter.
Poindexter: ...is that once you surface an idea and it's a good idea, in the long term there's very little that can be done to stop the idea.
Amos: I'm Deborah Amos. The new relationships between government and the information industry present striking challenges for a society that cherishes personal autonomy. In just a few short years, data and surveillance technologies have raced far ahead of the nation's laws and understanding. What's taking shape is, in effect, a high-tech homeland security system, with key parts outsourced to the private sector. Some are calling it a security-industrial complex. The impact of these trends will be with us for many years. The discussion about where to draw the lines has just begun.
No Place to Hide was produced by John Biewen and Robert O'Harrow. It was edited by Deborah George. Senior producer, Sasha Aslanian; project coordinator, Misha Quill. Mixing by Craig Thorson. Production assistance from Ellen Guettler, Patrick McGrath and Tennessee Watson. Web production by Ochen Kaylan. The Executive Editor is Stephen Smith. Executive Producer, Bill Buzenberg. I'm Deborah Amos.
Tom Crann: To read interviews with John Ashcroft and John Poindexter or to find out how to order a CD of this program, visit our Web site: americanradioworks.org.
No Place to Hide is a production of American RadioWorks and the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. It was produced in association with the Center for Investigative Reporting.
Major funding for American RadioWorks comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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