Then again, what is so sinister about the plan, exactly? Surely every
government is eager to read its notices in the press, foreign and
domestic. Surely the Bush administration already has a myriad of
minions in the White House, the CIA, the NSA, the DIA and embassies
around the world doing just that. True enough – and there’s the rub.
For if they are already tracking and sifting media sentiment to a
fare-thee-well, why do they need SAP’s $2.4 million software?

Here we see the same principle that lies behind Bush’s illegal
warrantless surveillance program. Long-established law – the FISA court
– already provides Bush with the power to spy on anyone even remotely
suspected of a connection to terrorism – and to do so immediately,
without waiting a single instant or jumping through a single
bureaucratic hoop to get the operation going. So who is he actually
using his warrantless surveillance program against? It can’t be
suspected terrorists; they are already covered by existing law. There
are only two conclusions to be drawn from this strange state of
affairs: 1) The Bush regime is using the program to spy on people other
than suspected terrorists. 2) It is using the program to establish the
principle that presidential power cannot be restrained by law in any
area that the president arbitrarily designates a “matter of national
security.” These conclusions are not mutually exclusive, of course.

Likewise, we must ask: who is the “Sentiment Analysis” program aimed
at? It can’t be the major news and opinion drivers in the international
and national media; these are already being monitored. And it hardly
requires a deus ex machina to determine the political sentiment behind
news stories and opinion pieces. Why then would you need
multimillion-dollar computer whizbangery to tell you whether a story
casts a favorable or critical light on Bush and his policies? And how
could critical “sentiment” in the kinds of stories that Cornell, Pitt
and Utah are examining in their tests pose any kind of “potential
threat” to the nation? Again, there must be something else behind the
program because, as with warrantless surveillance, it is clearly
redundant on its face.

The key to this conundrum mostly likely lies in the envisioned scope of
the program: “millions of articles” to be processed for “sentiment
analysis.” This denotes a fishing expedition that goes far beyond the
“publicly available material, primarily news reports and editorials
from English-language newspapers worldwide” that Claire Cardie,
Cornell’s lead researcher on SAP, says that her team will be using in
developing the software. The target of such a scope cannot be simply
the English-language foreign press, or the foreign press as a whole, or
indeed, every newspaper in the world, from Pyongyang to Peoria. It must
also be aimed at other modes of textual communication, in print and

In fact, later in the PR blurb, Cardie rather gives the game away when,
seeking to allay “fears about invasions of privacy” raised by the
research, she notes that “the techniques would have to be changed
considerably to work on documents like e-mails.” Yes; and an
intercontinental ballistic missile is just a big, shiny, harmless
rocket – until you load it with a nuclear weapon and fire it at
somebody. No doubt Cardie is simply a dedicated scientist, focused on
the technical problem at hand, and her naivetè on this point is
genuine; but once you have built a platform that can churn through
millions of pieces of text to uncover criticism and dissent – however
the organs deign to define these concepts – then this technology can
certainly be adapted to launch all-encompassing “sentiment analysis”
against any form of written communication you please.

Nor is this program being developed in isolation. It is part of a
larger Homeland Security push “to conduct research on advanced methods
for information analysis and to develop computational technologies that
contribute to securing the homeland,” as a DHS press release puts it,
in announcing the formation of yet another university consortium. This
group – led by Rutgers, and including the University of Southern
California, the University of Illinois and, once again, Pitt – has
pulled down a whopping $10.2 million to “identify common patterns from
numerous sources of information” that “may be indicative of” – what
else? – “potential threats to the nation.”

This research program will draw on such areas as “knowledge
representation, uncertainty quantification, high-performance computing
architectures” – and our old friends, information extraction and
natural language processing. It is in fact closely associated with the
“sentiment analysis” work being done by the Cornell group – and note
that the Rutgers consortium is designing its info-gobbling software to
deal with “numerous sources” of information. Do we sense some synergy
going on here?


The Cornell and Rutgers groups are two of four “University Affiliate
Centers” thus far established by Homeland Security. All of the
consortiums are geared toward the amassing, storing and analysis of
unimaginably vast amounts of information, gathered relentlessly from a
multitude of sources and formats. They are in turn just part of a
still-larger panorama of “data mining” programs being developed – or
already in use – by the security organs.

These include the “Analysis, Dissemination, Visualization, Insight and
Semantic Enhancement” (ADVISE) program, which can rip and read
mountains of open source data – such as web sites and databases, as
analyst Michael Hampton reports. Two Democratic Congressmen, David Obey
of Wisconsin and Martin Sabo of Minnesota, have asked the General
Accounting Office to investigate the program for possible intrusions on
privacy rights, Hampton notes.

While Congressional concern for privacy is all well and good, we know
that it means nothing to the Unitary Executive. Earlier this month,
Bush used his “signing statement” magic wand to wave away a direct
Congressional mandate for reports on whether Homeland Security is
obeying privacy laws in compiling its secret “watch lists,” which
increasingly control more and more aspects of American life, including
“who gets on planes, who gets government jobs, who gets employed,” as
Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy
Information Center, told AP. Using the by-now ritualistic language of
presidential dictatorship, Bush’s statement said he would ignore
Congress’s direct order and delay, alter or simply quash the privacy
reports as he saw fit.

You don’t need a machine-learning algorithm or $2.4 million worth of
Ivy League software to connect the dots here. The Bush administration
already has spyware devouring reams of private information in every
direction. It is now paying top universities millions of dollars to
refine this data into actionable intelligence – including the automated
discernment and tracking of dissent against administration policies and
criticism of the president. Bush has openly declared that he has no
intention of obeying privacy laws – or any other laws safeguarding the
Constitutional rights of American citizens – if he doesn’t want to.

And if that’s not sinister enough for you, consider this: on Tuesday
George W. Bush signed the “Military Commissions Act,” which states that
he can arbitrarily declare anyone – yes, American citizens included –
an “unlawful enemy combatant” for any action that he arbitrarily
decides constitutes “material support” to terrorists. He can imprison
these “UECs” without charge or trial, for the duration of the “War on
Terror,” which he and Dick Cheney have already assured us will not end
“in our lifetime.” He can subject these captives to “strenuous
interrogation techniques” that by any sane reckoning constitute torture
– but this same Act allows Bush himself to determine what is legally
torture and what is not, except in the most extreme cases, such as rape
and deliberate murder.

A regime openly committed to wielding arbitrary power over the life and
liberty of every person on earth is now equipping itself with intrusive
technology beyond the wildest dreams of the most totalitarian states in
history. And some of the nation’s most respected educational
institutions – proud bastions of civilization and enlightenment – are
helping them do it. It is simply impossible that such a system will not
be mightily abused.

And for all you SAP machines out there: that conclusion is a fact, not an opinion.

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