Skip to comments.Critics say Defense 'Total Information Awareness' Impractical
Posted on 12/15/2002 5:21:30 PM PST by APBaer
Critics say Defense 'total information awareness' impractical
By Shane Harris firstname.lastname@example.org
Security advocates and technology experts threw cold water on a controversial Defense Department plan to create a new counterterrorism system that would use information technology to sniff out clues to a possible terrorist assault and identify attackers before they strike. The critics said the system, currently being researched by the Pentagon, would violate civil liberties, undermine commerce and probably wouldnt work.
Charles Peña, a policy analyst with the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington, said its statistically unlikely that the system could predict and pre-empt attacks and also avoid targeting innocent people as suspected terrorists. He said that if the systemwhich theoretically would analyze relationships among transactions such as credit card or airline ticket purchaseswere applied to the entire population, almost as many people would incorrectly be identified as terror plotters as would be correctly fingered. That scenario would make the technology useless, said Peña, who argued against spending millions of dollars to develop it.
The Total Information Awareness (TIA) system is managed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Pentagons main research and development unit. It would use data retrieval, biometric identification and other technologies to analyze information in databases. DARPA has not yet said what databases would be searched, but controversy has engulfed the project amid fears that private purchases and travel patterns might become the subject of government inspection.
Peña, delivered his remarks Thursday at a briefing about the project for congressional staff members and journalists. He was joined by civil libertarians who derided the Pentagons work as another in a growing list of excessive encroachments upon privacy and due process undertaken by the Bush administration since the Sept. 11 attacks.
Bob Levy, a Cato senior fellow, called upon officials to define the scope of the TIA system and to set limits on what it would collect, whom it would monitor and what people would have access to its data. Levy feared that without such clarification, the system could result in expansions of domestic enforcement surveillance and limitations on privacy rights already permitted by post-Sept. 11 legislation and executive actions.
Wayne Crews, Catos director of technology policy studies, also said the TIA system could undermine electronic commerce, because business today is predicated on the sanctity of privately owned databases. He worried that if companies were forced to submit their databases to inspection by the system, the customers assumption of privacy would be assailed.
The TIA system project is managed by former National Security Adviser John Poindexter, who was convicted after the Iran-Contra scandal on felony counts of lying to Congress. That conviction was overturned. Poindexter hatched the idea for the system and was hired by DARPA earlier this year on a contract basis to oversee it.
Levy echoed the concerns of many critics that Poindexter shouldnt be in charge of such a potentially sensitive national security tool, given his history of making false public statements. The concern is not that [Poindexter] is not the right man for the job. The problem is that he may be the right man, Levy said.
Peña, said the administrations best public relations move would be, at least, to replace Poindexter with another manager.
Poindexter has repeatedly refused to grant interviews to the news media. However, his deputy, Robert Popp, has spoken to journalists and at public gatherings. He has emphasized that DARPA isnt building a machine to search information, but is testing the technological viability of the concept using fictional or legally obtained data. Additionally, Popp said, the agency is building privacy protections into the systems design, looking for ways to encrypt data so that only authorized people could see the name of a person associated with a piece of information.
Once DARPAs research is completeprobably in about three yearsthe agency would share the plans with agencies interested in using the system, Popp said. Likely interested parties would include the CIA, FBI, Homeland Security Department and National Security Agency.
Perhaps someone from the STASI is available?
Too bad this guy died a couple of years ago. He would have fit in nicely.
There is some merit to this idea, although everything said about its potential for becoming a civil liberties nightmare is true.
Several such systems exist today, and to some degree they work. If someone were to steal your credit card without your knowledge, by the second or third transaction -- and maybe even the first -- a neural net system that has been watching you for a long time would likely notice "out of character behavior" for you and bring these transactions to the attention of a human. This is in place today; it watches over an incredibly large data stream of everyday credit card transactions that no human -- or even team of humans -- could keep up with.
There is nobody 'spying on you' here, it is just a machine, which promptly forgets 99.999% of what it looks at. It's really watching for aggregates and patterns. Could someone who works at the vendor that provides this system peek at what you do? Yes, but there is such a torrent of the stuff that you're basically anonymous in there.
The point is, this is not "profiling." There is no profile of what a credit card fraudster looks like. The expectation is that within this huge data stream of real-time credit card transaction data, all but a minuscule number of transactions are legitimate. What's more, people don't like to be hassled, so the system has to have a very low "false positive" rate, or the banks won't use it. In spite of those challenges, the damned thing works, and works pretty well.
Even though it may sound like pie-in-the-sky to examine a huge data stream to find one bad guy in a sea of good ones, this problem is solvable... it has been solved in some areas.
This debate is better carried on in terms of the privacy threats and the potential for abuse, than over speculative claims that it "won't work." It may very well work.
Possibly. Unless the gov't is doing the work themselves. They have aleays been horrible at such systems. Consider fraud in any gov't health program or programs like food stamps. The fraud is huge.
If private firms do the work it depends on who gets the contracts for such projects. This could be something someone like snORACLE gets their fingers in and it gets blown up so big it never works. But, if outfits like Choicepoint and others get involved this idea could get interesting.
One thing you are correct about. Building various real-time data analysis systems looking for negative patterns is not that big of a deal. And if they are constructed correctly there are no real privacy issues because the system does not care about Joe Blow. Not that there is much in the way of electronic privacy anyway. That cat left the bag years ago. And the only way to put it back in is to outlaw electricity. I don't see that happening.
Yes, all the Usual Suspects are involved. There is a ton of money going down for this stuff right now, and everybody in the business knows it. This One Giant System To Rule Them All is getting the headlines, but behind the scenes there a dozen dedicated, single purpose, "look for this" type systems under development. I'd tell you more, but then I would have to kill you.
Wish I had a dollar for ever time I've heard that line....
All seriousness aside, most of this stuff is either being done or managed by Spook Agencies of various kinds. One I dealt with is in Crystal City. They answer their phone "Hello?"
I don't care if Laura Bush is the first one in charge - no matter how trustworthy or innocuous the first, second, third or fourth, etc., person in charge would be, at some point in time you'd get someone that would've made a good Stasi or KGB head. And all of that wonderful data on every transaction by every person would be available for use against political opponents. Ordinary people would be left alone - for a while. The first to have the choice between resigning and having some scandal spilled all over the public airwaves will be those in a position to oppose the head of this Big Brother-like agency. When power has been consolidated within that particular administration by our "hero," those in the opposition party will get the same treatment. Over time, laws will be passed at the very private behest of this guy that will totally gut our liberties. Unless assassinated, this guy will make Hoover look like some fruitcake in a tutu (oh, damn, Hoover did that to himself), and will, more seriously, have a real shot at becoming our Stalin or Hussein.
The Founding Fathers were so right to fear the power of a central government. They were incredibly wise to limit the power of the Fedgov, split the power three ways, specifically forbid the Fedgov from trampling on certain key rights, and to further specifically provide that the populace should be armed without interference from the Fedgov - just in case, mind you. Yet our parents, us and our children will throw it all away - just watch.
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