Back when I was in the insurance biz and working as the storied Cohen of Claims, I used to get confidential reports prepared by private investigators. These were often a porridge of gossip -- the Peeping Tom observations of nosy neighbors who, in their telling, could make a through-the-wall marital spat sound like the croaking of a Wagnerian diva. It made for great reading and, sometimes, a denial of insurance coverage.
Now, though, these reports are reduced to the zeroes and ones of computer codes. This gives them a certain authority -- not to mention a permanence and, zip-zip, the ability to multiply geometrically. Now, we all are the sum of our zeroes and ones -- soon to be reassembled in Washington.
The government, working under the moral guidance of a near ex-con (close call), is assembling just such a system as part of the war on terrorism. The new Information Awareness Office is being run by an Iran-contra alum, John M. Poindexter. The onetime national security adviser under Ronald Reagan was convicted in 1990 of five counts of lying to Congress, among other charges. His conviction was later overturned on what amounted to procedural grounds. He's not guilty. But he's hardly innocent.
The idea is to give Poindexter personal data from governmental and commercial databases from around the world. This information will not be misused, Poindexter swore to my colleague, Robert O'Harrow Jr. of The Post -- although not under oath this time.
The former Cohen of Claims is not reassured. He notes a story this week in the Wall Street Journal about a so-called FBI watch list that was circulated to various businesses right after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. It contained the names of people the bureau wanted to question. The list went out to hotels and rental car agencies, banks and even Las Vegas casino operators.
These, in turn, made copies of the list and passed them on to others. Faxes were blurred. Names were misspelled, identities confused. The list was fed into databases, and when the FBI deleted a name, it informed no one. If you were on that list by mistake, you stayed in many databases no matter what. Some companies use the list to screen job applicants. Try getting a job if you're on the FBI watch list for . . . well, it's not clear for what.
Last year, a guy in New York held a party for all the Richard Cohens in the Manhattan phone book. He had dozens of them. I wasn't surprised. Every time I get my credit report, I have to account for deadbeat Richard Cohens. Is one of them on the FBI's watch list? Does John Poindexter have the goods on me? Maybe. But it ain't me.
The war on terrorism has not caught Osama bin Laden, but it caught Asem Atta, no relation to Mohamed Atta, the purported terrorist ringleader. The FBI had him on its watch list. It later deleted his name from its list, but it could not delete it from the lists made from the lists. The Wall Street Journal tells us his name lives on in databases and Web sites, stalking him maybe forever.
The computer and advances in communications were supposed to create something called the "global village." They have. The conventional village was often a place of stifling conformity, a place where everyone knew everyone else's business. Now this claustrophobia can be felt on a worldwide basis. The blessed anonymity of the big city is gone. Your neighbor still may not know much about you, but your credit card company and supermarket do. Soon, so will the government.
We are told that we will have to give up certain civil liberties if we are going to make this country safe from terrorists. Of course. But how are we going to be safe from the information-gatherers, the techno-snoops who want to reduce us all to computer databases? It may even be too late. The Orwellian-named USA Patriot Act and now the creation of the Homeland Security Department vest great, intrusive powers in the government. It will have its lists. It will use its lists.
I feel sometimes like the images I occasionally see on digital TV -- the picture breaking up into pixels, coming apart digitally. This is me, I sometimes think. Everything I do -- credit card purchases, trips across some toll bridge, telephone calls, e-mails sent and received -- gets recorded somewhere. A piece of me -- a piece of all of us -- is constantly flying into some computer. Soon, another computer -- this one a behemoth -- will reassemble us digitally, authoritatively, and we will be what it says we are.
The machine has stolen our soul.