By Jane Black Remember the movie The Cable Guy? It's the one where Jim Carrey plays a cable-TV repairman who only wants to help, yet he unwittingly sets out to ruin the life of one of his customers. That story could be coming to a reality near you.
That's right. The government wants your cable guy, meter reader, even your postman to voluntarily report any and all suspicious information about you to a new, central FBI database. It's called Operation TIPS, short for the Terrorism Information & Prevention System. The goal is to give millions of American truckers, letter carriers, train conductors, ship captains, and utility employees a formal way to report suspicious activity.
A pilot phase, slated to begin later this summer, would initially recruit 1 million workers in 10 cities. The Teamsters Union has already signed on. The U.S. Postal Service, which originally said its 800,000 workers would not participate, is also encouraging its workforce to join.
SOWING SUSPICION. The idea is the brainchild of Attorney General John Ashcroft. But like many of Ashcroft's salvos in the war on terrorism, Operation TIPS will more than likely reduce privacy without increasing security. Let's be real: Terrorists with half a brain aren't likely to be outsmarted by the mailman or open the door to have the gas meter read if they have bomb-making material nearby.
But ordinary people, who might be reading the Koran, will. The result could be a flood of unsubstantiated and largely irrelevant tips that overwhelm law-enforcement officials already mired in data. Worst of all, the program could sow the seeds of suspicion among loyal American citizens.
Privacy-protection advocates allege that Operation TIPS is simply a way for the FBI to get into people's homes without a warrant. Before the police or FBI can search your residence, they need probable cause and an order from a judge. But you let the cable guy into your home voluntarily. And once you do that, you relinquish certain rights of privacy. Whatever the cable guy sees is fair game.
"This is an end run around the Fourth Amendment," warns Harvey Silverglate, a Boston civil liberties lawyer. "It's a way into every American's home without judicial oversight."
A PHONE LINE WOULD DO. The government maintains that it has no intention of recruiting a civilian army of spies. The Justice Dept. declined to return repeated calls for comment or elaboration on Operation TIPS. In a terse statement, Justice's Director of Public Affairs Barbara Comstock said Operations TIPS is a program that empowers Americans "uniquely well positioned to understand the ordinary course of business in the area they serve, and to identify things that are out of the ordinary."
If that's the case, why do we need TIPS at all? Robert Levy, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, argues that if the aim is a central database to log suspicious activity, it would be better to simply publish a toll-free phone number for all 285 million Americans, not just 10 million workers with special access to individuals' homes.
Some powerful legislators agree. On July 18, House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Tex.) added language to the House version of the Homeland Security Bill (which would create the new Homeland Security Dept.) that would prohibit Justice from setting up Operation TIPS.
BIASED REPORTS. Whatever the Administration's intentions, Operation TIPS won't work. A million informants could file several million tips a week, all of which would have to be followed up by law enforcement. One of the lessons learned from the September 11 tragedy is that a lack of information isn't what prevented the FBI from picking up on the terrorists' plans. It was an excess of badly organized and shared data. The TIPS program will only add to the problem by forcing agents to waste resources on unsubstantiated tips.
Worse, many of those tips will come as a result of personal bias or racial profiling. "Law enforcement may end up chasing information based on uninformed citizens who have their own biases or may be prejudiced. It's an ineffective way to use police resources," says Rachel King, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.
Another important -- and still-unanswered -- question is how will the data be stored, and who will have access to it. Will the TIPS program create FBI files on thousands, even millions, of unsuspecting Americans? And where will those files end up? The next time you're passed over for a job or a loan, will you wonder if it's because the cable guy filed a tip about your collection of Middle East travel books? "The U.S. government has a history of abusing information," says King. "These are not hysterical fears."
OVERBLOWN FEARS. Not everyone is so worried. "Deterring potential criminality requires pattern recognition. You have to identify factors or people who are acting out of context. And it isn't wrong to try to do that better," says Paul Rosensweig, a senior legal research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
Rosensweig adds that fears of a new McCarthyism are overblown. He sees Operation TIPS as a simple extension of other government programs such as Highway Watch, Coast Watch, and River Watch, which enable workers on key transport routes to report unusual activity.
Perhaps. But those programs involve eyes trained on public thoroughfares. The idea that government and private-sector workers will do surveillance on their fellow citizens in their own homes is simply un-American.
For evidence, we need only look at the results of the McCarthy era's red-baiting. In his memoir Timebends, Arthur Miller recalls the conversation he had with film director Elia Kazan who had decided to name names to the House Un-American Activities Committee. As Miller walked away, he felt "pure sadness." "Who and what was safer because this man in his human weakness had been forced to humiliate himself?" Miller wondered. The same should be asked about Operation TIPS. Black covers privacy issues for BusinessWeek Online. Follow her twice-monthly Privacy Matters column, only on BusinessWeek Online