Broader U.S. spy initiative debated

Poindexter leads project to assess electronic data, detect possible terrorists

Civil liberties concerns raised

January 05, 2003|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Even its name, some say, is ominous and Orwellian, conjuring up visions of Big Brother tracking your video rentals, prescriptions or e-mail: "Total Information Awareness."

To privacy advocates and civil libertarians, this government supercomputer project is nothing less than domestic spying, the chilling first step toward a surveillance society. The man leading it, former Iran-contra figure John M. Poindexter, only adds to what critics call the "spook factor."

But to security specialists, the drive to develop a network of public and private databases could be crucial to identifying terrorists before they strike and to preventing another Sept. 11.

Total Information Awareness, which officials say is in the experimental phase and years from being used, is a project of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon's research arm. Since the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, DARPA has developed technologies for the military. It led the way in the creation of the Internet.

The goal of the Total Information Awareness program is a global computer surveillance system that could sift through mountains of personal information in databases - credit card purchases, telephone calls and e-mails, medical prescriptions, passports, driver's licenses, school records, magazine subscriptions, gun purchases - to look for suspicious patterns and ultimately identify potential terrorists.

Poindexter, a national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan whose felony convictions in the Iran-contra scandal were overturned on appeal, says such a system could help track terrorists who can now move freely without detection.

"Total Information Awareness - a prototype system - is our answer," said Poindexter, a retired Navy rear admiral, during a speech last summer.

"One of the significant new data sources that needs to be mined to discover and track terrorists is the `transaction space,'" he said. "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."

Privacy advocates say that giving the government access to such data could subject innocent citizens to scrutiny and that, in the wrong hands, the information could be used to intimidate political foes - much as J. Edgar Hoover's FBI exploited the gathering of intelligence to harass critics of the Nixon administration.

The program "is the mother of all privacy invasions," complains Jay Stanley of the American Civil Liberties Union. "It would amount to a picture of your life so complete it's equivalent to somebody following you around all day with a video camera."

But many security specialists say such technology is worth considering and point out that it would have to stand up to legal challenges.

"In this environment, we have to engage in very aggressive, exhaustive research and development efforts," says Phil Anderson, an international security senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "If they're inappropriate, then they never make it through the legal system. Reason - and our great Constitution - prevails."

Poindexter's role

Poindexter, who has worked as a DARPA contractor for several years, approached the Pentagon with the idea after the Sept. 11 attacks and discussed it over lunch with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Early last year, Poindexter was made head of DARPA's Information Awareness Office, which is also working on technologies to identify people at great distances through facial features and gait. The TIA program's budget was set at $137 million for this fiscal year.

After recent criticism, Poindexter and the office have kept a low profile. A DARPA spokeswoman said that neither Poindexter nor any other agency official was available to discuss the project.

Even the Web site for the Information Awareness Office has been toned down. Until recently, the site featured as its emblem an all-knowing eye atop a pyramid - with its sights set on the entire globe - and a Latin motto meaning "knowledge is power." A redesigned Web site now has no such logo or slogan.

Differing policies

Specialists in technology policy tend to support Poindexter's basic theory that linking and comparing databases could yield valuable information.

For example, a report by the Markle Foundation, a private philanthropic group that focuses on information technology, showed how the Sept. 11 hijackers could have been identified before the attacks if the names of all airline passengers had been run through the government's "watch list" of suspected terrorists and then checked against phone numbers, addresses, frequent-flier numbers, lists of expired visas, and attendance rolls from flight schools.

But the report cautioned: "Though there are areas where more data may need to be collected, the immediate challenge is to make more effective use of the information already in government hands or publicly available."

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