Feds Open ‘Total’ Tech Spy System
By Eliot Borin
2:00 a.m. Aug. 7, 2002 PDT
Had Winston Churchill been alive in the months subsequent to Sept. 11 he might well have described U.S. intelligence agencies’ performance prior to the attack thusly: Never have so many known so much and done so little.
On Wednesday, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) will begin awarding contracts for the design and implementation of a Total Information Awareness (TIA) system.
It’s a system which, it hopes, will ferret out terrorists’ information signatures — clues available before an attack, but usually not correctly interpreted until afterwards — and decode them prior to an assault. It’s a task, the Information Awareness Office (IAO) says, that is beyond “our current intelligent infrastructure and other government agencies.”
TIA program directors make it clear they also believe the task to be beyond current technology, noting that they are primarily interested in revolutionary advances in science, technology or systems and “development of collaboration, automation and cognitive aids technologies that allow humans and machines to think together about complicated and complex problems.”
So insistent are they on building a better mousetrap — or, more accurately, a brand new terrorist trap — that they have officially warned potential contractors that not a dime will be invested in “research that primarily results in evolutionary improvements to existing technology.”
According to the IAO’s blueprint, TIA’s five-year goal is the “total reinvention of technologies for storing and accessing information … although database size will no longer be measured in the traditional sense, the amounts of data that will need to be stored and accessed will be unprecedented, measured in petabytes.”
It is precisely the thought of petabytes of raw data being under the control of an agency with limited public accountability that troubles civil liberties activists like Lee Tien, senior staff attorney of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
“We should resist the expansion of any ‘data-veillance’ program that doesn’t have adequate safeguards and accountability,” Tien says. “This program sounds like a counterpart of the movement toward requiring a national ID card. People like to think of that as an identification system, but it’s actually a tracking system.
“The Total Information Awareness program, with its ability to provide persistent storage of everything from credit card, to employment, to medical, to ISP records, is a recipe for civil liberties disaster unless there are provisions for citizens to find out who is looking at their records and to see and correct those records.”
“What I don’t want to see is a system that’s the worst of both worlds, unable to predict acts of terrorism in a timely manner because of the sheer mass of mostly irrelevant information clogging its channels, but perfectly attuned for intimate spying on regular citizens and activists like Martin Luther King.”
Even in these early days, Tien’s concerns have some resonance. Among the topics DARPA spokespersons would not discuss in connection with this article were the program’s budget, whether the technology was being developed for deployment by an existing intelligence department or a new “super spy” agency, and which program elements the contracts being issued this month cover.
“This DARPA project sounds a lot like Spielberg’s Minority Report premise of ‘PreCrime,'” said security consultant and author Richard Forno, referring to the fictional law enforcement office that arrests folks before they commit a crime.
“I mean, I’m a geek, but my two degrees are in international relations. Does that mean if all of a sudden I start buying books on terrorism, bio-war or current affairs, I’m going to be labeled a potential bad guy?”