The Magazine

Total Misrepresentation

From the January 27, 2003 issue: There's a compelling case to be made for the Pentagon's Total Information Awareness program.

Jan 27, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 19 • By HEATHER MAC DONALD
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Equally specious has been the critics' personalizing of TIA as the devilish ambition of its director, Admiral John Poindexter. Poindexter was President Reagan's national security adviser and a lead player in the Iran-contra scandal. Safire claims that "Poindexter is now realizing his 20-year dream: getting the data mining power to snoop on every public and private act of every American." Safire doesn't reveal how he knows what Poindexter has been dreaming for the last 20 years. Every privacy paranoiac has milked Poindexter's involvement in Iran-contra for all it's worth, and indeed, the Bush administration should have foreseen the ad hominem potential of his appointment. But the critics' charge that TIA represents Poindexter's personal desire to "monitor every aspect of your life," in the words of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is absurd. Should the technology prove feasible, Pentagon researchers would deliver it to law enforcement agencies like the FBI and the CIA to operate; Poindexter would have nothing to do with its implementation.

The reaction to TIA is a textbook case of privacy hysteria. The Bush administration had better learn how to counter such outbreaks, for they will resurface with every new initiative to improve the country's intelligence capacity. They follow a predictable script:

-Barely mention the motivation for the initiative, if at all. Safire, like several of his followers, writes an entire column on TIA without once referring to terrorism or the 9/11 strikes.

-Never, ever suggest an alternative. Islamic terrorists wear no uniforms, carry no particular passport, and live inconspicuously among the target population for years. Many, sometimes all, of the steps leading up to an attack are legal; they become suspicious only when combined in a particular way in a particular context. TIA's critics adamantly oppose using data mining to detect suspicious patterns of activity in civilian populations, but they never propose an alternative method to find the terrorist enemy before he strikes.

Remember the outcry after 9/11 over the intelligence community's failure to "connect the dots"? TIA is nothing other than a connect-the-dots tool, with a global scope that individual analysts cannot hope to match. Do its detractors simply hope that as the next attack nears, the same intelligence analysts who failed us last time, using the same inadequate tools, will get it right this time? They do not say.

-Assume the worst; ignore the best. The Kansas City Star editorializes that if TIA proceeds, "Uncle Sam could end up listening to your phone conversations, reading your e-mail and monitoring your shopping trips." Well, yes, if defense intelligence analysts lose interest in al Qaeda and develop so strong a fascination with the quotidian affairs of John Q. Public that they are willing to risk their careers to abuse the system, that could happen. But the lawful use of TIA could also stop a smallpox release at Disneyland. TIA would allow investigators to identify, say, visa holders from terror-associated countries who had spent more than a month in Afghanistan during Taliban days and who also shared addresses, phone numbers, or credit cards; it could spot airline ticket holders who had telephoned people on terror watch lists over the past year; and it could determine which visa applicants had traveled to certain cities contemporaneously with terrorist activity.

-Use a privacy balancing test when pursuing your own interests, but demand privacy absolutism regarding the public good. Americans are credit card junkies, cell phone aficionados, ATM devotees, and Internet shoppers. All of these consumer conveniences transfer vast swaths of personal information to corporations, which then often sell it for additional profit. Americans happily balance the privacy risk of electronic communications against the concomitant increase in personal ease, and often decide that convenience trumps privacy. But let the government propose to protect the public good by using data that Americans have freely provided to companies, and the citizenry become privacy dogmatists. No matter how many lives might be saved if the government could analyze nameless bytes of data for signs of deadly transactions, one's own alleged right not to have a government computer scan a database containing one's Christmas purchases is more important.