The Magazine

Total Information Unawareness

What we don't know can hurt us.

Feb 17, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 22 • By HEATHER MAC DONALD
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SCORE A BIG ONE for the Luddites, and maybe for al Qaeda. On January 23, the Senate voted unanimously to ban the use of revolutionary anti-terror software before it is even developed. (Research on the software can continue provisionally for 60 days.) A hysterical media and advocacy-group campaign against the software project produced this rare senatorial unanimity. The Bush administration, so far missing in action, must finally defend this vital project.

The now-banned technology--being developed by the Pentagon's prestigious Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and dubbed Total Information Awareness (TIA)--would allow government entities involved in counterterrorism like the CIA and FBI to link their databases and analyze intelligence more effectively. No longer would such crucial facts as the presence of al Qaeda operatives on U.S. soil go unnoticed. (At the time of 9/11, two of the hijackers were on U.S. government terror watch lists.) TIA software would be capable of searching currently unconnected crime and intelligence repositories for suspicious activities, which findings would then be presented to human analysts for further investigation. TIA might flag from the Los Angeles Police Department's crime reports, for example, that a terror suspect was fencing credit cards in Los Angeles, and alert FBI agents in Washington. Further investigation might trace the proceeds to scuba lessons for cell members planning to bomb, say, a Navy destroyer off the California coast.

TIA developers are also testing whether the inclusion of non-governmental databases in the computer searches would increase the chances of averting a terror attack. They are building dummy collections of made-up private information, such as mock Yellow Pages or phone records. Analysts playing the role of terrorists will then plan and try to stage a virtual terror attack. TIA researchers will test how much predictive value, if any, is gained from seeking the terrorists' cyber-trail in the dummy commercial data in addition to the government intelligence. Should the private databases prove valuable, TIA developers--assuming Congress hasn't summarily halted their work--will present their findings to legislators, who will decide whether to grant intelligence analysts greater access to commercial information.

Herewith is what the TIA research is not, contrary to the ravings of privacy fanatics like New York Times columnist William Safire, who triggered the anti-TIA stampede:

-It is not an effort to create a central information depository. TIA will search databases where they are.

-It is not a collection of personal dossiers on "every American," in Safire's words. TIA researchers have no access to personal data; their research uses dummy information. And if the program were eventually deployed, it would not create 300 million personal dossiers. Such dossiers would not have the slightest intelligence value.

-Data-mining is not an "untested and controversial intelligence procedure," pace Senator Russell Feingold, who has introduced a bill to ban it. The Treasury Department's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network has long used data-mining to search for evidence of money-laundering, and is now charged with searching for terrorist financing networks. The technique also aids the early detection of infectious disease epidemics through searches of hospital databases.

-It does not represent project director Admiral John Poindexter's diabolical desire to spy on Americans. Poindexter, who was convicted of lying to Congress during the Iran-contra scandal, will have nothing to do with TIA once it is in operation; it will be used exclusively by intelligence and law enforcement analysts. Moreover, TIA researchers are building numerous privacy protections into the system, such as concealing the names of people engaged in suspicious transactions until a threshold of probable cause is met, and creating strong audit trails to record misuse of the system.

Not to be bothered with finding out the truth about TIA, one hundred senatorial lemmings voted to forbid its use unless Congress specifically authorizes and appropriates funds for its deployment--tantamount, in practical terms, to a permanent ban.