This is Dallas, a conservative bastion. But the county government is setting up a system for spying on private citizens that would have turned old Joe Stalin green with envy.
The county has signed a $40 million contract with a French multinational corporation to take over all of its information technology, from property tax payments to court files to election records. The company, SchlumbergerSema of Paris, is an international pioneer in the technology of "smart cards"--chips embedded in plastic ID cards and in machinery, even surgically embedded, to enable the minute monitoring of individual behavior.
Schlumberger is one of several companies competing to develop smart cards that will marry biometrics with miniprocessors. The goal is a chip containing the bearer's photograph, fingerprints, lip kiss prints, iris recognition image, even DNA. The chip would exchange information about the bearer with reader machines connected to vast national databases.
In a New York press release announcing the agreement, Schlumberger promised it would help make Dallas "Homeland Security compliant, providing both physical and logical [information] security.
"For example," the company said, "SchlumbergerSema is creating a bio-terrorism tracking system, which will help gather and disseminate information for the county. Furthermore, SchlumbergerSema is streamlining the county's law enforcement/court system with a new system designed by SchlumbergerSema."
SchlumbergerSema said it would talk to me about its contract but then backed out after I breathed the word "privacy." Dallas County officials said they would provide a copy of the contract then changed their minds after a similar conversation.
That left me to do some reading on my own about the state-of-the-art smart cards and about the federal government's push for "Total Information Awareness" as an anti-terrorism tool. Let's play this out in simple terms:
Imagine that two years from now Schlumberger, whose primary business is oilfield services, hits a really bad patch financially and finds a way to avoid ruin by aggressively marketing some of the data it has mined as an IT consultant to companies and governments. Imagine that your own longtime employer is on hard times as well. And let's imagine that you are four years from retirement and have been diagnosed with a very early cancer that is affecting your kidneys.
Your company decides it needs to deep-six anybody who's going to incur major medical expenses any time soon. They drop a nickel in the Schlumberger information jukebox, and out pops the fact that you have been flushing your toilet a lot between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m.
They also notice that you've been making cell calls to an oncology practice. But the really irritating thing they find is that last year, after you were told to vote for the Work, Family and Discipline candidate for governor, you voted for that weak-kneed Republican they hate.
Too weird? Some of it's real right now. The rest is just around the corner.
The Jacksonville, Florida, Electric Authority, called JEA, which serves 350,000 electric customers and 227,000 water customers in northeast Florida, is under contract with Schlumberger to set up wireless metering of all residential accounts. The system, under construction as we speak, will send in reports on an individual home's electric and water consumption every five minutes. An article in City and County magazine gushes that "The wireless fixed network will allow engineers and planners to take an instant true-load snapshot by house, by area or by town."
Right now they can minutely monitor the load for your whole house. Tomorrow they will put chips in every outlet and at each faucet.
Smile. You're on Candid Camera.
During the 2001 Super Bowl in the Ybor City district of Tampa, Florida, Tampa police tried to use a biometric system based on facial characteristics to monitor vast crowds. Computers were to search for matches between faces in the crowd and a database of bad people. The system didn't work at all, because of problems with lighting and anomalies that occur when people change their hairdos or alter their facial expressions.
But they'll get there. How long ago was it that you almost had to stop your car at the Tollway so that the machine could read your tag? Now you can do it at 70 mph, right?
When these systems are perfected, you will be asked to expose your eye to an iris recognition reader, or to press your fingerprint against a pane of glass, or submit a fluid, or perhaps kiss a portrait of your corporate leader: When the reader agrees that you are the proper bearer of your card, and when the card agrees that it works for the reader, then the card and the reader will exchange all sorts of information about you. You will not know what they're talking about.
You could be sitting at the loan officer's desk, and the message on his computer screen might be telling him, "...applicant makes late-night cell calls to fellow worker of opposite sex; also buys expensive gifts, which fellow worker, unbeknownst to sap applicant, returns for cash."
I spoke to John Hennessey, Dallas County's chief information officer, as well as to the administrator for the county Commissioners Court, about the scope of the Schlumberger contract in general. I asked specifically whether the new arrangement might include some introduction of a smart-card identification system for access to county buildings and records. Hennessey said the contract with Schlumberger "is flexible enough that it [a smart-card system] could be a part of this agreement."
Much of the thinking about smart cards seems to be aimed at universalizing them less through mandatory requirements than through incentives. The federal government is exploring the use of smart cards for "safe travelers"--people who agree to be checked out in advance, once and for all, and who then will be able to step around long security lines by presenting their smart cards. Retailers are beginning to offer smart cards as "loyalty cards"--frequent shopper cards--with some sort of discount attached.
It is by no means inconceivable that the county, under Schlumberger's tutelage, would require or encourage people seeking access to its computer systems to carry smart cards. And there is a hitch to which I as a reporter happen to be especially sensitive. I was a reporter before PCs existed.
In the days when records were kept in great big hand-logged ledger books, I don't think I ever entered a single South Texas or rural Michigan courthouse and asked to see a public record without getting grilled.
"Well, who are you? Are you a lawyer? Do you have some ID? Why do you want to see our records? Whose records in particular are you looking for?"
And, of course, I had a right--not as a reporter but as an American citizen--to see public records, my records, records I owned as a citizen, without telling anybody who I was or what I was doing. That was often the point: Two-thirds of getting the goods is in the sneaking up.
You allow somebody to put a smart card between you and the records, those days are over. Count on it. Start checking on a legislator's voting record, and his staff will know who you are and which terminal you're on.
Some people don't care that President Bush's guru in charge of anti-terrorist data mining, John Poindexter, was convicted in 1990 of lying to Congress on behalf of a terrorist state in Iran. I guess this is the "nobody's perfect" theory of civil virtue. But in recent months civil libertarians from all points of the political spectrum have been pointing out that the people attracted to data mining too often are typified by the dark figure of Poindexter, a man who never saw a secret he didn't want to keep. Or use.
Nat Hentoff of the Village Voice has been especially eloquent in arguing that anxiety over terrorism has coupled with an explosion of technical capacity to threaten American liberties as never before. American cities from the liberal Northwest to arch-conservative Arizona have been forming "Bill of Rights Defense Committees" to resist federal encroachments on constitutional rights in the wake of 9/11. As many as two dozen cities have passed resolutions directing local officials to question or closely examine federal information-gathering techniques before cooperating.
Hentoff not included, most of us in the press probably harp too hard on our own right to know while harboring an unattractive disdain for everybody else's right not to be known. Somewhere at the far extreme is the ugly idea that there is no such thing as true or ultimate privacy. Whether it's President Clinton's sex life or Martha Stewart's diary, the notion is that someone, acting on some theory, has a right to scour any or every individual clean of privacy.
It almost doesn't matter where that idea resides--in the media, in government, in banks, in organized religion, who cares? The idea itself is fundamentally totalitarian and inimical to the American way. Privacy is liberty. The ability to scrape people bare of their privacy is exactly what Joe Stalin wanted all along. Scrape them or kill them, whichever comes first.
County government here is not signing away its trust as custodian of our records because people in county government want to see us stripped of our liberty. They're doing it because: 1. They haven't thought it through; 2. They're typical people older than 25 who have way too much faith in computers; and 3. You and I have not told them that we care deeply about our privacy.
But if it were ever going to come, if Big Brother were ever going to slip the hood over America's head, it would arrive not as a plot but as a big lazy puddling accident. Either way, the hood is dark.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.