[FoRK] Poindexter confidential
Contempt for Meatheads
jbone at place.org
Thu Apr 29 08:55:00 PDT 2004
Ya know, I've always thought Poindexter was a really brilliant guy and
a visionary, just a little shaky in terms of his ability to assess the
public reaction to and impact of his ideas.
The Caltech physics wonk infamous for Iran-Contra, Total Information
Awareness, and terrorism futures talks about life as a not-so-private
By Spencer Reiss
Page 1 of 1
John Poindexter's career has played out in the headlines: Iran-Contra
conspirator, the Pentagon's Big Brother in chief, godfather of a
futures market to predict terrorism. But there's an alternate reality:
The 67-year-old retired admiral is the only serious technologist ever
to reach the highest circles of power in Washington. He's a Caltech PhD
who two decades ago dragged the White House into the digital age,
plugging in everything from fiber-optic video to email. He uses Groove
Networks' Workspace to keep in touch with friends and rhapsodizes about
encryption like a cypherpunk. In the first interview since Congress
forced him to step down last summer as head of Darpa's Information
Awareness Office, Poindexter speaks out about privacy, sim terrorists,
and Iraqi WMD.
WIRED: What was it like being grilled by Richard Feynman for your PhD?
POINDEXTER: I was scared out of my wits.
What was the topic?
Electronic shielding by closed shells in thulium compounds. I'm afraid
it doesn't really translate into English.
Good practice for some of the political buzz saws you've run into since?
It's easy to be a critic. We live in an information society.
Corporations and governments have mountains of data that power our
economy and give us the highest standard of living in the world. The
question is, How do we manage information intelligently to preserve our
freedoms, protect our way of life, and advance civilization?
"Knowledge is power" was the IAO's official motto - that spooks a lot
Knowledge is power, for good or evil. The issue is giving goodness the
edge. We can't eliminate evil; we can recognize it and try to deter it
by ensuring that those doing evil are detected and punished. This
applies to the terrorist and to those who would abuse data.
The program's goal was to "revolutionize" the US government's ability
to identify terrorists.
You can't take an existing system and dramatically change its
capabilities overnight. You start by creating a small, experimental
network, running it in parallel with the "normal" system, and then
introducing new ideas and capabilities. We had real users from the
intelligence community working with a combination of real and synthetic
It's a little like the Sims - you create a virtual world that has real
addresses, real airports, but is populated with imaginary people. We
built them by taking a list of all the last names in the country and
then adding first names at random. Then we had them take trips. We had
a team of a dozen people who came up with scenarios. You introduce
terrorists into your world, and then you start looking for ways to pick
them out from the data.
And you succeeded?
In a very preliminary way, with a lot of human help, yes, we did.
Your critics never relented on privacy questions.
Advocacy groups want to stay in business, so it's in their interest to
paint a dire picture.
Is privacy a right?
It's certainly not a constitutional right. It's an individual right
that has to be balanced with concern for the common good. Privacy has
to be relative to other objectives - for instance, security. The
greatest threat to privacy is terrorism. How much privacy was there in
Afghanistan under the Taliban?
Are we managing that balance well today?
Not at all - in a lot of ways we have the worst of both worlds: no
security and no privacy. There are at least 50 federal laws and
regulations regarding the handling of personal information. Programmers
call that spaghetti code.
You were accused of building giant data banks of private information.
Nothing I worked on had to do with collecting data - we have plenty of
that in this country, probably more than we need. Our focus was turning
it into useful information. You leave it where it is - because of the
cost of moving it to a central location, the difficulty of keeping up
with technology, and the US citizen's basic distrust of the government.
So how do you persuade people that having the government peer into
their lives is a good idea?
Most people don't understand what we were trying to do. Too many
opinions are formed based on sound bites from those who yell the
loudest. One of the things we were working on was a "privacy appliance"
that would conceal a person's identity until a case could be made
against them. Congress killed that, too.
The technologies you used include Groove Networks' very trendy
You don't collaborate because it's faddish - you do it because there's
always ambiguity in the data and you need diverse viewpoints to try to
decide what it all really means.
For instance, Iraqi WMD?
That's a perfect example. There were obviously different perspectives,
but did they find their way to the decisionmaker? And in such a way
that he could understand what the different interpretations were and
how they were arrived at? I don't think that happened.
So, a Groove space for the president?
At some point, a US president will be in a Groove space or something
comparable, sure. Maybe not this next time, but four or eight years
from now we'll elect someone who grew up on the Internet and is more
willing to sit at a keyboard and do things on his own.
God, I hope not.
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