Columns » Warwick Sabin

I spy U. spy

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Earlier this month, the Electronic Privacy Information Center released a November 2001 joint proposal to the U.S. Department of Justice from UALR’s CyberCollege and Acxiom Corp. that apparently never got the green light.

For $1 million, the two entities would “apply advanced techniques of information retrieval … to automatically find and identify websites belonging to advocates of extremist views and actions that may pose threats to peace and security.”

Coming only two months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the intent of the project is understandable. In practice, however, this public-private partnership would have enlisted taxpayer-financed college kids and professors in unlimited Internet monitoring.

“There are individuals and groups in every society who hold extreme views on many issues, such as, abortion, racial superiority, politics, religion, immigration, and foreign affairs, to name a few,” the proposal said. “They often promote their views and attempt to recruit new adherents through Internet websites. ...

“A system could be modeled and developed that automatically and constantly searches the World Wide Web and identify such sites. Once identified, law enforcement and security officials will be able to monitor and cross reference these sites. ... In addition, the system could be enhanced to extract features, such as, individual names and titles, telephone numbers, e-mail addresses, and mailing addresses. Once properly identified, indexed, and stored in a database, this information could be made available to the proper authorities for further action.”

Put aside the Orwellian chill the proposal sends down your spine. Put aside the impracticality and inefficiency of federal investigators running down every automatic alert triggered by a controversial opinion expressed on the Internet. Put aside the laughable idea that such a dragnet would ever prevent an actual act of terrorism.

I don’t blame Acxiom for trying to sell its services to the government. Data mining is what they do, and this particular use of their technology amounts to little more than a Google search marketed to capitalize on post-9/11 paranoia.

If the project had been implemented, the company “would benefit from revenue and hopefully the margin,” said Acxiom spokesman Dale Ingram. “That certainly would be our goal and fiduciary duty.”

But why would a public university get involved in such a hair-raising scheme? I understand the benefits of corporate partnerships through which students gain real-world experience and preparation for jobs after college. And when the research and development can contribute to national security and progress in a particular field, that is a good thing.

Still, there have to be some limits to the kinds of projects a public university will attach its name to. Did UALR even hesitate for a minute to consider the merits of this proposal before signing on?

(Apparently not, since the authors didn’t take the time to run a spelling check. If, as they proposed, the Acxiom/UALR system would search for words like “Chaney” and “Hammas,” it would conceivably miss the unsavory elements it presumes to target.)

One likely reason UALR was eager to sponsor this initiative is that Acxiom is a corporate contributor to the CyberCollege, with a laboratory there in its name. Ties between the company and the college got closer in August 2004, when Mary Good, the CyberCollege dean, joined Acxiom’s board of directors and started receiving a base annual salary of $55,000 that supplements her UALR compensation.

Good did not return calls for comment, but UALR communications director Amy Barnes said Good responded by saying the document sent to the Justice Department was not a “proposal,” but rather a “white paper for discussion.” (The actual document is titled “Research Project Proposal.” You can read it at http://epic.org/privacy/choicepoint/acxiominternet.pdf.)

Any time public resources are being used in a way that directly results in revenue for a private corporation, there must be serious oversight that prevents undue influence and conflicts of interest.

Barnes said Good has procedures in place based on best practices used at other colleges and universities.

Remember, Acxiom’s gifts to the CyberCollege are tax deductible, which makes them a great investment if the company is receiving services and preferential treatment. But you’re only supposed to be able to write off charitable contributions if you don’t get anything in return.

U.S. Rep. Vic Snyder, who sent the proposal to then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, told me that he never read it closely enough to arrive at an opinion on its merit. He said it was “credible enough on its face,” because he saw it came from UALR and Acxiom. In effect, UALR’s imprimatur secured the involvement of a congressman in behalf of a would-be government contractor.

That’s money well spent.


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