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Before people bought Segways on the Internet, there existed a mysterious land of infinite promise called the Frontier. It was a hazy sagebrush desert, populated by nerds fancying themselves late-20th-century '49ers. They shared an Old West, anti-lawman ethos, sending messages to each other that ended with this quip from millionaire technologist John Gilmore: "The net interprets censorship as damage, and routes around it."
Like trappers and homesteaders and prospectors of the early west, these pioneers thrived on plunder, entering and leaving corporate databases at will, stealing and distributing source code, giving themselves bandito-sounding names like NuPrometheus League.
In 1990 federal agents entered this world in pursuit of Lotus founder Mitch Kapor and Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow. Investigators hoped to squash the NuPrometheus Leaguers, who had been accused of disseminating proprietary Apple computer code. The agents intimidated the young hackers and conducted intrusive searches that the Internet pioneers considered illegal. For their defense, Kapor and Barlow rounded up anti-Establishment allies, including Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, former Merry Prankster Stewart Brand, and Gilmore, the Sun Microsystems pioneer who had retired a millionaire at age 30. Together, these men became founding directors of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization dedicated to protecting civil rights in cyberspace, encouraging the spread of information technology to the masses, and defending Net users against government interference. The group's irresistible story line -- in which millionaires creatively spend a fortune defending hackers -- made it the most famous phenomenon related to the early World Wide Web. For a time, EFF members were considered the most influential visionaries of the technological future. And though the group's ubiquity faded over time, Gilmore kept himself at the intersection of the issues of personal liberty and information sharing, even as the context for that crossing shifted from Internet hacking to the War on Terrorism.
So it seemed only natural that Gilmore was among the first to respond when I wrote a column two weeks ago facetiously calling for citizens to rise up against the Bush administration's Total Information Awareness project. The one in which the Pentagon would suck up every possible piece of personal information available on U.S. and world citizenry, and then store it in a massive secret database. The one led by former Iran-Contra liar/conspirator John Poindexter.
I had called for readers to use private information on Poindexter to make his life uncomfortable. Gilmore said he was hoping to spread the snoop-on-the-snoops idea much, much farther. "I've started by sending it and some other ideas to some individuals who have a history of digging up interesting information on threats to civil rights, and publishing it widely," he wrote in an e-mail.
Indeed, Gilmore posted a call to arms -- actually a call to phone the home number of Poindexter and his neighbors -- to the Politech Web site run by prominent technology writer Declan McCullagh. At last Google-hit count Monday morning, our now joint appeal had been reposted on 124 Web sites, from New York to Switzerland to France and beyond. The message: Surveiller la surveillance.
When I called Gilmore at his home in the Bay Area last week, I was feeling a bit sheepish. It's an odd, humbling feeling, speaking with someone who's given your own words a lot more thought than you have yourself. I had written my spook-the-spook column on a lark; to my own discredit, I don't spend terribly much time thinking about the relationship among information sharing, liberty, politics, and government.
"This Total Information Awareness stuff -- it's the big database in the sky that they said they'd never, never do," Gilmore said, adding that he believes Poindexter's putative aim of seeking out terrorists is specious. "It's going to be quite hard to look at this haystack and find patterns of lawful behavior that show there is secret terrorism going on. What this will be good for is going after particular people when you have someone already in mind. It's ripe for abuse in any number of areas."
Gilmore recently made headlines suing John Ashcroft and others over airline policies that require the flying public to show identification. He says a new information-sharing database now being assembled on the airlines' behalf is the dawn of an Orwellian future. "The system the airlines are running now is called CAPS [computer-automated passenger screening]," Gilmore said. "They're building a system called CAPS 2 that's the prototype for Total Information Awareness. It's built to pull in information from all kinds of databases -- driving records, military records, tax records -- to figure out if you're a risk to the airline. They're going to dig out your records and score you. If you get a bad score, you don't get to fly, even if you haven't done anything."
Gilmore believes Poindexter's new, more comprehensive, Pentagon-managed database would eventually be used to harm innocent citizens for political gain.
"The question is, how to stop him?" Gilmore said. "If he hears from enough people in his ordinary everyday life that he's a terrible person, he just might decide to stop. What if the guy who delivers milk to him says, 'You people are sons of bitches?' What if his phone service constantly gets turned off, because teenagers are turning it into a pay phone? You know phone freaks have been doing this kind of thing for years. If you talk to any divorce lawyer, you will see all these sorts of tricks -- finding out which videos they rented, what's in their bank accounts. What's Poindexter watching on his videos? We're not looking for big stuff. It's all the little stuff. Wouldn't it be great if his picture were up on posters all over Washington that said, "Don't speak to this man. Don't pick him up if you're a cabdriver'?"