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Civilian Corps idea causing insecurity

July 30, 2002

I am sitting here wearing my Sherlock Holmes chapeau and holding a magnifying glass. That's because I am dearly hoping to be among the 1 million people the U.S. Department of Justice wants to recruit for its "Civilian Corps," a gang of civilian volunteers recruited specifically to spy on their neighbors.

I'm not kidding. Well, I was about the magnifying glass, but the rest of it's solid. Great. Another feel-good farce that ranks right up there for effectiveness with strip-searching 14-year-old girls in Britney Spears T-shirts at the airport.

Called Operation TIPS, the Terrorism Information and Prevention System is a plan by our kooky, krazy U.S. Department of Justice to involve the millions of American workers who, "in the daily course of their work, are in a unique position to see potentially unusual or suspicious activity in public places."

So I guess that means the entire staff at Carson Jewelers, or any other business with the misfortune of fronting Public Square.

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They are seeking "truck drivers, utility employees and postal workers (postal workers? There's Son of Sam guarding the asylum for you)" to tip off the government if they see anything suspicious.

Well, as a columnist, I get around, so I went to the Web site and clicked the Join Now! link, and that's where things started to get good. First was the tantalizing warning that the site "uses encryption to protect transmitted information." Next it says that the government certifies that it is in fact the government and the encryption is "Highest grade RC4 with 128-bit secret key." A secret key - cool.

Finally I get to the Citizen Corps Mailing List, which I can sign up for. For about 20 seconds I seriously consider filling it out thus:

First Name: Osama

Middle Initial: B.

Last Name: Laden

The fact that I would actually consider spending the rest of my life in a federal pen in exchange for a few yuks should show just how far I am willing to go for you, the loyal reader.

But I played it straight and submitted my info, only to see: "You have requested an insecure document that could be observed by a third party while in transit."

What the ...? They just spent 20 screens telling me how bank-vault secure everything was. Now they say anyone, but most likely Art Bell, can clandestinely view my private information. What happened to my highest grade encryption RC4 with 128-bit secret key? Did it get polio?

Well, this is my country I'm working for, so hang security, I don't care who knows that Tim Rowland of 17414 Rudolph Lane, North Pole, is now a government spook. I click "submit" and promise to enclose two Kellogg's box tops in exchange for my new decoder ring and X-ray glasses.

Post Script: Well I've got to tell you, I am pretty disillusioned. All I got for my trouble were two identical blow-off e-mails thanking me for my trouble and encouraging me to "check our Web site frequently for new developments." (New development! Batman rescues President Bush from Carlos the Riddler!)

Plus, after a giddy night of drinking up this farce, I am left with the hangover of knowing that I just entered my name into a government database. Why on earth did I think THAT was a good idea?

Well, titter if you must, but when Agent Rowland breezes past you in the line at the airport, we'll see who laughs last.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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