Citizens strike back in intelligence war

October 08, 2003

WITH the demise last week of the Bush administration's controversial Terrorist Information Awareness (TIA) programme to monitor everyone in the US, citizens now have a chance to get their own back. A website to be launched later this year will allow people to post information about the activities of government organisations, officials and the judiciary.

The two MIT researchers behind the project face one serious problem: how to protect themselves against legal action should any of the postings prove false. The answer, they say, is to borrow a technique from the underground music-swapping community. Instead of storing the data in one place, they plan to distribute it around the internet in a similar way to the notorious Napster software that got music file-sharing under way.

Just like TIA, the new website, called Government Information Awareness (GIA), is designed to collect snippets of information to build a database that can later be searched to reveal patterns of suspicious behaviour. It is based on a site that Chris Csikszentmihályi and Ryan McKinley of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Laboratory set up in July. That site (http://opengov.media.mit.edu) encourages members of the public to post information about organisations, officials and politicians, such as their business links and the source of their campaign donations. The original site was hosted on one of MIT's servers. But soon after the site was launched it had to be dramatically scaled back after being overwhelmed with traffic and because of legal worries. The researchers do not edit the content, and became worried that if any of the postings were malicious or untrue MIT could be held responsible.

They hope that following the Napster approach will get them round this problem. Instead of storing the data on a single server, so-called peer-to-peer networks hold data in a number of locations around the internet, from where it can be downloaded directly. This strategy thwarted the music industry's attempts to sue some of the groups that organise the swapping of digital music files.

For the relaunched site, MIT will simply provide the facilities to post data and search for it. "It will be a sort of citizens' intelligence agency," says Csikszentmihályi. "It's an interesting tactic in the battle for civil liberties," says Lee Tien, a lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. He believes the site has value, even if it appears to be stooping to the government's level. "A lot of people do know bits and pieces- we are handicapped in not being able to connect them."

But whether MIT will be immune from legal action remains unclear. Some lawyers say that as long as the organisers do not edit the content, they cannot be held responsible for any libellous material. Others are more cautious. "Whoever hosts something that is defamatory and untrue takes a risk," says Mike Godwin, technology adviser for the public interest group Public Knowledge in Washington DC. The researchers' strategy may minimise that risk, he says. "Peer-to-peer is probably the best way."
-end-
New Scientist issue: 11th October 2003

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Author Celeste Biever

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New Scientist

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