SPYING/ The technology topic of 2003 -- unless the American citizenry is too frightened by the prospects of war and terrorism -- will be the Total Information Awareness program, the huge surveillance database project created by the Bush administration. TIA's goal is to detect terrorist activity by searching through masses of data for patterns of suspicious activity, a seemingly reassuring concept. But the program brings up two fundamental questions: Is combing through Americans' phone calls, online transactions, e-mails and credit-card charges -- essentially anything that resides on a computer -- the best way to find the bad guys? And is it worth the cost to our constitutional rights?
If you read through what is available publicly about the project, the first thing you notice is how much faith is being put into this technological investment. Supporters believe that the millions that will be spent on TIA -- rather than on, say, recruiting human beings who can understand and penetrate terrorist groups -- really will give us an edge. But systems can create a false sense of security. It's too easy to believe that something generated by a computer is "true" -- for instance, an Enron balance sheet or an Internet start-up business plan.
TIA will indeed find suspicious patterns -- a lot of them. Will these be the trails of real terrorists or of innocents or simply of everyday wrongdoers, now discovered without the usual Fourth Amendment protections?
The project says it will protect the identities of those whose records are being searched. But it is being conducted in secret, without oversight or legislative constraints. If 2003 does not find us passionately debating this issue, we might be truly sorry in 2004.
-- Ellen Ullman, a longtime software engineer, is the author of "Close to the Machine" and "The Bug," a novel forthcoming in May.