Tuesday, January 10, 2006

your wish at our command

Most of us simply fret about laws like the Patriot Act and how it seems governments like to treat 1984 as a self-improvement guidebook instead of a dystopian nightmare. In his latest posting, Tom Owad takes it one step further and scares the bejeezus out of me.

Put simply, Mr. Owad combines an old computer, several basic scripts and Amazon wish lists to build his own list of potential "subversives". After reverse-engineering the URL structure for these wish lists, he chooses a common first name, sucks in all wish lists for people with this name, and scans the lists for his selection of "subversive" texts. You know, books like Brave New World and (naturally) Orwell's 1984. And he does this using resources freely available to him, in about 30 hours total.

As always, here are some of my favourite excerpts from this posting:

Next comes the fun part – what books are most dangerous? So many to choose from. Here's a sample of the list I made. Feel free to make up your own list if you decide to try some data mining. Send it to the FBI. I'm sure they'll appreciate your help in fighting terrorism.
One curiousity revealed by this project is that there are quite a few people who show up for multiple books. Reading On Liberty and Build Your Own Laser, Phaser, Ion Ray Gun and Other Working Space Age Projects? We really should have a special list for you.
Thanks to Google Maps (and many similar services) a street address is all we need to get a satellite image of a person's home. Tempted as I was to provide satellite images of the homes of the search subjects, it just seemed a bit extreme even for this article. Instead, I opted only to pinpoint the centers of the towns in which they live. So at least you'll know that there's somebody in your community reading Critical Thinking or some other dangerous text.

I recently started to track articles I'm reading by posting them to my del.icio.us account and assigning the reading tag to them. I'm not the only del.icio.us reader to do so; a quick scan of del.icio.us/tag/reading shows many other del.icio.us users do so as well. I wonder how long it would take to scan all bookmarks marked reading for subversive texts?

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