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New technology could return power to people


Amid all the worries about Big Brother intrusion into our lives in the name of homeland security, we’re relieved that we live in a society in which people can still fight back — using the same technology the government is deploying against us.

The United States government has become enthralled with programs that use new technology to keep tabs on everyone, projects such as the Pentagon’s Total Information Awareness (since renamed the less-ominous-sounding Terrorist Information Awareness), which would use public and private databases to build dossiers on everyone in the country; or its Combat Zones That See, which merge video cameras and computers to track vehicles and drivers within a city.

The latest salvo against this intrusiveness comes from researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Their brainchild, Government Information Awareness is “sort of a citizen’s intelligence agency,” Chris Csikszentmihalyi, an assistant professor at the MIT Media Lab, told the Boston Globe.

Their GIA project combs the Internet to assemble background information on politicians and government officials, much like the government’s TIA sorts through government and private databases to analyze the actions of individuals.

“Our goal is develop a technology which empowers citizens to form their own intelligence agency; to gather, sort and act on information they gather about the government,” Csikszentmihalyi’s fellow researcher, graduate student Ryan McKinley, told Wired magazine.

“As the government broadens internal surveillance, and collaborates with private institutions to access data on the public, it is crucial that we maintain a symmetry of accountability,” the GIA Web site ( says.

“If we believe the United States should be a government ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people’ it is of central importance to provide citizens with the power to oversee their government. At least as much effort should be spent building tools to facilitate citizens supervising their government as tools to help the government monitor individuals.”

The GIA site keeps tabs on all branches of government — executive, legislative and judicial. It’s also easy to use: Two mouse clicks brings up a list of congressional representatives — and their top contributors.

Jeff Bingaman: Exelon Corp.

Pete Domenici: Intel Corp.

Tom Udall: International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

A third click brings a viewer details on an individual representative, including education, religion, city of residence and a list of contributors. As the project grows, users will have more information on those in positions of power.

Another way in which Government Information Awareness returns power to the people is by letting users submit their own information about government figures and agencies. Although such a feature can be easily abused, the fact that anyone can make a correction or rebuttal means GIA has a built in regulator to combat misinformation.

Technology can be put to good or bad uses, but like the proverbial genie, it’s hard to get it back in the bottle once it’s released. Terrorists have taken advantage of new ideas and inventions to wreak havoc; governments have used innovations to fight terrorists, sometimes at the expense of our privacy and our liberty. It’s nice to see two researchers use that same technology in the name of freedom.


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