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‘Total Information Awareness’ imperils civil rights, critics say


Even its supporters must now doubt the wisdom of the Orwellian-like name selected for the Pentagon’s technology-based effort to track terrorists: the Total Information Awareness System.

Worse yet for civil libertarians concerned about government intrusions, the program resides in the Pentagon’s Information Awareness Office. The motto: “Knowledge is Power.”

What some might consider linguistic missteps have not, however, stopped the Bush administration or Congress from moving ahead with a high-tech plan that supporters say will help catch terrorists before they act, but which opponents fear will evolve into a tool the state will use to harass citizens, particularly those who disagree with whoever happens to be running the government at the time.

If Total Information Awareness wasn’t controversial enough, the man tapped to develop it -- retired Admiral John Poindexter -- has a past that many in Washington assumed relegated him to bureaucratic oblivion. As national security adviser to Ronald Reagan, Poindexter engineered the diversion of funds from Iranian arms sales to the contra rebels in Nicaragua, and then was convicted of lying to Congress about the episode. That conviction was overturned by the courts, which found the immunity Poindexter enjoyed in his Congressional testimony extended to the criminal charges.

Poindexter was appointed to head the Information Awareness Office, a branch of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) early this year.

The idea behind Total Information Awareness is simple enough: Use existing commercial and government databases to track suspected terrorists as they plot their destructive schemes. It’s a variation on a technique -- data mining -- that technologically savvy private sector marketers employ every day. In the private sector, a potential customer’s travels, both virtual and real, are tracked through the “signatures” each transaction or communication yields. Potential customers who frequent winter-getaway Web sites, for example, might be prime candidates to purchase a pair of skis. Targeting those prospects -- through e-mail, direct mail or advertising -- is legal, relatively cheap and highly effective.

In an August speech, Poindexter elaborated on how the Pentagon would employ such methods -- not to entice new customers, but to target terrorists.

“If terrorist organizations are going to plan and execute attacks against the United States, their people must engage in transactions and they will leave signatures in this information space,” he told an agency conference. “This low-intensity/low-density form of warfare has an information signature. We must be able to pick this signal out of the noise, [and] the relevant information extracted from this data must be made available in large-scale repositories with enhanced semantic content for analysis to accomplish this task.”

Poindexter continued: “Total Information Awareness -- a prototype system -- is our answer. We must be able to detect, classify, identify and track terrorists so that we may understand their plans and act to prevent them from being executed. To protect our rights, we must ensure that our systems track the terrorists and those that mean us harm.”

Privacy proponents and civil libertarians are not buying Poindexter’s benign interpretations. Wrote New York Times columnist William Safire: “To [the] computerized dossier on your private life from commercial sources, add every piece of information that government has about you -- passport application, driver’s license and bridge toll records, judicial and divorce records, complaints from nosy neighbors to the FBI, your lifetime paper trail plus the latest hidden camera surveillance -- and you have the supersnoop’s dream: a ‘Total Information Awareness’ about every U.S. citizen.”

Further, said Georgetown University law professor David Cole, the Pentagon aims to “create the technology by which the military can gain access to all the computer accessible information that exists out there in the world about any of us.” Government access to such information, even when no criminal activity is suspected or “probable cause” established, “is a very scary power and one that is subject to tremendous abuse,” he told NCR.

Meanwhile, a group with otherwise widely divergent views -- representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union and People for the American Way along with Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum and Paul Weyrich’s Free Congress Foundation -- signed a Nov. 18 letter to Senate Leaders Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and Trent Lott, R-Miss. The group was unsuccessful in an effort to gut the program. They urged the Senate to reject Total Information Awareness during their recent vote on homeland security legislation.

The homeland security legislation includes provisions to establish the Total Information Awareness program within a new agency, the Security Advanced Research Projects Agency, which Poindexter is expected to lead. Plus, the legislation removed some restrictions on government information-gathering first enacted as part of the Privacy Act of 1974.

But it’s early yet. Given the level of controversy generated, Total Information Awareness will likely be subject to intense Congressional scrutiny. And earlier this month, the Army announced that the consulting firm of Booz Allen Hamilton was to receive $1.5 million of the $63 million in fees it will ultimately garner for its assistance on the project.

The consultant’s work, said the Army announcement, “is expected to be completed by Nov. 7, 2007.”

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is jfeuerherd@natcath.org

Related Web site

Total Information Awareness

National Catholic Reporter, November 29, 2002