Sunday, July 20, 2003

The Monroe Doctrine was a farce or did Europe really win the war of 1812?

"Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives. A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy or perhaps both."
- James Madison (Fourth President of the United States) Now, he said this in native language!

Site Lets Citizens Monitor 'Big Brother'

Ryan McKinley relishes the idea of turning Big Brother on his head.

Concerned about expanded government monitoring of individuals, McKinley, a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has created an Internet repository for citizens to provide information about public officials, corporations and their executives.

The result, he hopes, will be a giant set of databases that show the web of connections that often fuel politics and policymaking, such as old school ties, shared club memberships and campaign donations.

McKinley, 26, was inspired by the military's Terrorism Information Awareness program, a controversial effort to use computers to look for patterns from seemingly disparate financial and other personal data as a way of tracking and halting potential terrorists.

"In order to avoid a totalitarian world, we need to figure out ways to make sure it doesn't become unilateral," said McKinley, who is careful not to disparage efforts to combat terrorism.

So McKinley, an Orinda, Calif., native who is using the project as his master's thesis for a degree in media arts and science, is drawing on the information-gathering prowess of millions of Internet users.

Dubbing it the Government Information Awareness project, McKinley has written a series of computer programs that will allow users to "scrape" existing online databases and add the information to his site ( Individuals can also plug in information they might have developed or have access to, a potential boon for whistleblowers, said McKinley's thesis adviser, assistant professor Christopher Csikszentmihalyi.

So far, McKinley has populated the site with data from available sources such as lists of White House appointments of agency heads, biographies of members of Congress and campaign-contribution data compiled by public-interest groups. McKinley said he wanted to "seed" the site with such information to give people a sense of what was possible.

A search for a particular member of Congress yields a page of the accumulated information, providing in one place what might now require visiting multiple Web sites. Ultimately, McKinley said, such a search might include links to lawsuits involving that legislator, or information showing that a certain legislator and a big campaign donor were fraternity brothers in college.

The site also breaks down information by category, including the judiciary and major companies. McKinley even envisions the system tracking local officials and companies.

But unlike the tightly controlled TIA, formerly known as the Total Information Awareness program, McKinley wants no part of determining what is relevant or important information. Otherwise, he said, "there would be no hope of it being a democratic system."

McKinley acknowledges that this makes the site vulnerable to political extremists or individuals with axes to grind who might post scurrilous information about particular officials. The Web has already been the scene of notoriously bogus sites aimed at discrediting certain officeholders or executives.

McKinley developed some controls that he hopes will give readers of the site the chance to properly evaluate the quality of information posted.

Posters of information must identify themselves, although they are allowed to choose aliases when using the system. The object of the posted information is alerted, so that he or she can confirm or deny the truth of the material. The material always will get posted, but it will carry the response from the individual.

Lets Tail or Wag d'Dawg

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