Total PR Awareness 
By Glenn Weiser
Metroland, June 5, 2003 

The Total Information Awareness project was later scrapped. - GW

What’s in a name? Critics called the Pentagon’s proposed Total Information Awareness program a technological Big Brother in the making. Then its creators renamed it Terrorist Information Awareness and said it was merely an elder male sibling who would only go after the bad guys.

Last November, The New York Times reported that Adm. John Poindexter, a Reagan-era national security advisor convicted of five felonies for his role in the Iran-contra scandal, had been hired by the Department of Defense to develop a project that would collect personal data on Americans from numerous public and private sources and integrate it into a huge, searchable database designed to detect potential terrorists. The project alarmed observers who said it would threaten privacy and civil liberties, and even staunch conservatives like former House Majority Leader Dick Armey and Rep. Bob Barr joined liberals in opposing it.

Poindexter once said in a congressional hearing that it was his duty to mislead Congress, so in February, a suspicious Senate voted to block funding for the project until the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) submitted a report explaining how the proposed undertaking would balance national security and privacy concerns. DARPA responded on May 20, saying it was worried that the public had gotten the wrong idea about the program, and changed the project’s name. Moreover, the agency claimed it would employ only hypothetical data in designing its database, leaving the onus of obeying privacy laws to the government agencies that would use it with real information. Every effort would be made not to spy on innocent Americans.

Critics still reacted with derision. “Name changed, problem solved,” read the headline describing the DARPA report on the Web site of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (, a leading privacy group. Although EPIC’s director, Marc Rotenberg, did not return calls requesting comment on the report, he told Reuters that compared to telephone wiretaps and other types of electronic eavesdropping, TIA would be subject to far less oversight. “This research program still has at its core a belief that a centralized system of surveillance can be made privacy-friendly, and I think that premise is essentially rejected by the U.S. Constitution,” Rotenberg said.

TIA, as first conceived, would have allowed the Pentagon to cull information about Americans from virtually every available source, including credit-card purchases, bank statements, medical and prescription records, visa applications, driving- and airline-travel records, logs of Internet users’ Web surfing and e-mail, telephone records, and employment history. A vast database would then be established, and data-mining technology would be used to comb it, looking for patterns identifying possible terrorists. Another aspect of the program, biometric technology, would enable spy cameras to spot people by recognizing their irises, facial wrinkles, and gaits even at great distances and then integrate that information into the database. It is not sure, though, if the as-yet-undeveloped technology needed to power it is even possible.

The 102-page DARPA report attempts to put a smiley face on the endeavor. To explain the name change, DARPA said in a statement, “The program’s previous name, ‘Total Information Awareness’ program, created in some minds the impression that TIA was a system to be used for developing dossiers on U.S. citizens. DOD’s purpose in pursuing these efforts is to protect U.S. citizens by detecting and defeating foreign terrorist threats before an attack.” The report itself adds, “Safeguarding the privacy and civil liberties of Americans is a bedrock principle,” and promises that spot audits of the information being gathered will be permitted and technical safeguards such as antihacking protection used.

Some senators, however, remained wary. In a New York Times story, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who authored the bill requiring the report, said that even though the name had been changed, DARPA’s aims and plans were essentially unchanged. Wyden also told Reuters that existing privacy laws did not foresee that the government might scrutinize commercial databases, adding, “Most people don’t know that the laws that protect consumer privacy don’t apply when the data gets into the government’s hands. ‘Lawfully collected information’ means just about everything.”

Sen. Russell D. Feingold, (D-Wisc.), was more emphatic, telling the Times that current privacy laws were insufficient to deal with data-mining technology. Calling for a halt to the project, he said, “The administration should suspend not only the TIA, but all other data-mining initiatives in the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security until Congress can determine whether the promised benefits come at too high a price for our privacy and personal liberties.”

List of Metroland Stories by Glenn Weiser                          ©2003 by Glenn Weiser. All rights reserved. 


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