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The watchmen, part 1

Someday, everyone will be a spy for 15 minutes.

What would you do if, in the town where you live, there was a man who lied to a grand jury, sold guns to known criminals, and was convicted of five felonies, who then got appointed by your mayor to a high position with the police where he then spied on every citizen?

Real likely, right? I mean, not unless everyone in Mayberry went over to the Dark Side.

Well then, Andy must be into Otis’s bottle, because former Reagan-administration National Security Adviser John Poindexter, who was convicted of five felonies (he got off on appeal), including lying to Congress in the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s, was appointed last year to run the Total Information Awareness system (TIA).

Actually, he was appointed to run the very project he proposed: Collect your tax filings, your driver’s license data, your bank records, your credit-card purchases, your medical data, your school transcripts, and your phone and your e-mail records into one supersized database and sniff through it like a bloodhound for terrorists. This guy’s darker than L.A. tap water.

Net activists have turned the tables on Poindexter. SF Weekly writer Matt Smith posted Poindexter’s phone, address, a few neighbors, and some tax assessor info in his column. Netizens posted Poindexter’s information on more 100 Web pages within a week of Smith’s column.

Now I would never, ever dream of spying on an distinguished, moral, ethical public servant. But since it’s Poindexter, I say let’s splash his private–but public and legally accessible–information in the biggest parade since Macy’s at Thanksgiving.

I check Infospace for “J. Poindexter” in Maryland. Bingo: I get John M. Poindexter at 10 Barrington Fare, Rockville, MD, 20850, and grab a map and aerial photos of his house from MapQuest that show he’s but a couple of putts away from the Lakewood Country Club. This is what you might expect, because Yahoo’s Real Estate Home Sales Prices lists the sale prices of 20 homes nearby, which ran $302,040 to $579,000. John’s House of Spies hasn’t apparently been sold recently, since nothing came up at property-search sites like Yahoo’s. But there’s a sneaky way to “walk back the cat”–to connect an address with sale price and tax information: your bosom buddy and mine, the tax assessor.

First, since most tax assessors are at a county level, I check out Montgomery country at CountyWebsite (and also discover there that Pointy lives in the sixth-richest county in America, in terms of per capita income). Now that I know the county, I use the Assessors Resource Library to find a specific resource for Montgomery country. In this case, only the Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation is listed. Doesn’t matter: I plug in Pointy’s lair and find out he bought the 2,202-square-foot (he has 12,924 square feet of outside property) house in March 1971 for $42,000 and that it has a current assessed value of $269,700.

It’s hard to reference the rest of the TIA cabal because, like Lady Macbeth scrubbing the hemoglobin off her hands, the TIA has removed all of Pointy’s and his henchmen’s biographies. They also yanked their Lex Luthor scientia est potentia (“knowledge is power”) slogan, scrubbed that Sauronesque all-seeing eye logo.

(The U.S. Senate recently voted to add to an appropriations bill a moratorium on the TIA program. The moratorium would ban use of TIA unless specific authorization is given by Congress or the president can show that not using TIA would “endanger the national security of the United States.”) Fortunately, privacy maven Richard M. Smith keeps copies of all that stuff at his Computer Bytes Man site.

Next month, we’ll look at more ways you can watch the watchers.

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