Name Game

Defense Department renames Total Information Awareness, does little else

Francis Raven and Carolyn Kousky

A program out of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the central research and development organization of the Department of Defense, has once again made headlines. In a report published May 20, the Defense Department attempted to play down fears about a program so controversial, Congress halted funding to it in January.

Formerly known as Total Information Awareness, the newly renamed Terrorism Information Awareness (TIA) program is the brainchild of Adm. John Poindexter, known for his 1991 conviction (later overturned) for lying to Congress about his involvement in the Iran-Contra affair.

The old name, DARPA notes on its Web site, “created in some minds the impression that TIA was a system to be used for developing dossiers on U.S. citizens.” Luckily for DARPA, with the new name, they get to keep their acronym. Unluckily for privacy advocates, they kept much more than the acronym.

The TIA program is based on the idea that terrorists plotting an attack create an identifiable pattern of transactions, patterns that could be identified for early warning about possible threats. What this requires, and what TIA proposes, is a computer network enabling the government to “mine,” or analyze, vast amounts of data on individuals, possibly including U.S. citizens.

The program has outraged privacy and civil liberties advocates on both the right and left. In January, Congress passed an amendment that blocked funding to the program until DARPA addressed privacy concerns and explained where funds for the program were going.

The TIA program is still in the development phase. It seeks to create fully functional software prototypes for the intelligence community to experiment with and then rapidly move into operational use. The report notes that the data used in testing will be either real “foreign intelligence and counterintelligence information that the federal government has already legally obtained … or synthetic, wholly artificial information.”

That is, for the moment they are not using databases solely made up of American citizens’ information. But they might. The Department of Defense plans to use TIA tools on any database the government has lawful access to—including passports and visas, drivers’ licenses, airline ticket purchases, and arrests.

Many of the programs under the Information Awareness Office, the arm of the Defense Department that houses TIA, seem, to the technologically illiterate, near impossible, like something from a science fiction novel. The Genisys Program, for example, seeks to develop database architecture that eliminates the “need to know where information resides or how it is structured in multiple databases.”

Human Identification at a Distance, another program in development, seeks to develop the technological capacity “to identify humans as unique individuals … at a distance, at any time of the day or night, during all weather conditions, with non-cooperative subjects, possibly disguised and alone or in groups.” In short, the program hopes to uniquely identify individuals based on their gait and posture. Information from both these programs may be provided to TIA.

The Secretary of Defense has established an advisory committee that will focus on privacy issues raised by the TIA program, and May’s report emphasizes strongly, several times, that the TIA program will be conducted in accordance “with existing laws, regulations, and policies.” It also says the TIA program does not recommend changing current laws related to data collection and use.

Whether this is comforting to the public may depend on how they view current legislation, including the relatively new Patriot Act, which allows federal law enforcement to monitor the books Americans buy and check out of the library. But there are few existing “legal constraints on government access to commercial databases,” according to the Center for Democracy and Technology. Businesses might even be willing to hand over information: A survey conducted by CSO Magazine in 2002 found that 41 percent of businesses were willing to share information with the government without a court order if national security were at stake. Less than half said they would release information only under a subpoena or court order.

The new report has attempted to address privacy concerns, but the ACLU and other privacy groups are still concerned. TIA data mining efforts would have unprecedented power, they say, and the program would aggregate large amounts of information, doing away with a certain amount of “practical obscurity” that has protected personally identifiable and sensitive information for some time. This raises red flags for many people, especially because there has been no detailed plan for how the managers of the TIA program could prevent unauthorized access and unauthorized use of the system. There is also no mechanism for correcting inaccurate information, or for any form of public accountability.

The TIA program may have changed its name, and some of its more alarming attributes may have been measured, but privacy and civil liberties advocates are far from placated.

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