No Orwellian Scheme Behind DARPA's Total Information AwarenessSystem

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No Orwellian Scheme Behind DARPA's Total Information AwarenessSystem

November 20, 2002 5 min read
Michael Scardaville
Former Policy Analyst
Michael served as a Policy Analyst for The Heritage Foundation

If you believe the political pundits in all the major news outlets, you probably believe the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's (DARPA) Total Information Awareness system (TIA), managed by Dr. John Poindexter, is about TMI - or Too Much Information on you.  In fact, TIA is what the public, Congress and many in the policy community have rightly been demanding since 9/11, a methodology for putting the pieces of the terrorism puzzle together in order to prevent another 9/11 while respecting fundamental American civil liberties.

On November 14th, William Safire initiated a call to arms to combat DARPA's efforts to turn Uncle Sam into Winston Smith of George Orwell's 1984, by claiming that, through TIA, DARPA is developing a "computerized dossier on your private life" that would include "your entire lifetime paper trail."[1] Not to be outdone, the Washington Times further fanned the fires the next day by describing the system as "A supersnoop's dream" that "will allow the federal government to track the email, Internet use, travel, credit-card purchases, phone and bank records of foreigners and U.S. citizens."[2]  This kind of scare mongering with references to the so-called "slippery slope" to totalitarianism are not new in the post 9/11 world, however 4 clicks of your mouse will give you a very different story about TIA. 

Neither TIA nor its subcomponents are secret projects being developed in the nether world of the intelligence community to subvert democracy and civil liberty, but open projects which DARPA described in detail during its recent DARPA Tech symposium in Anaheim, CA.  It has even posted transcripts from this seminar on its website. 

A reading of these briefings, beginning with Dr. Poindexter's, outlines a program that keeps the protection of civil liberties at its forefront while providing a valuable tool for investigating suspected terrorists and improving communication.

Even in support of investigating terrorists, TIA is not designed to create a dossier on every one in the United States in the off chance doing so might provide information useful information to the war on terrorism.  Nobody will be maintaining a file (electronic or otherwise) labeled "John Q. Public, SSN: XXX-XX-XXXX". Instead of searching for the pin, such an approach would merely build new haystacks on the ruins of national freedom.  Further, under such an approach, there could be little methodology to determine what information was useful. 

In fact, Ted Senator, a Project Director with TIA, clearly rejects this approach as both impractical and containing "important and legitimate legal and policy constraints."[3]  Instead, Mr. Senator notes that existing intelligence reports should be the starting point of the program and that the system would be designed to cross-reference numerous databases already in existence for related information.  In essence, it's merely a more efficient use of information that already exists.  Through such a mechanism, the intelligence community could build a more in-depth portfolio on a suspected terrorist including their contacts and frequent activities.  Such a capability may even expose entire terrorist cells.

Further, the TIA is being designed to protect individual privacy even while investigating suspected terrorists.  Another subcomponent of the TIA, Genisys, is being designed to "separate identity information from transactions that people conduct, only reforming this association when we have evidence and legal authority to do so."[4]  Information the system provides during the course of an investigation will also be user specific, so individual users can only access that information they have a need to see and filters are being developed to keep out irrelevant information.

These are important privacy measures that must be incorporated into the technology of the system as DARPA continues to develop it.  Once completed and deployed, however, policy safeguards guiding its use must also be implemented to limit the possibility of abuse.  Foremost, the use of this tool should be limited to developing intelligence on terrorists in an effort to prevent future attacks.  State and local and other federal law enforcement agencies should not have access to this tool to investigate common crimes such as tax evasion and child support enforcement.  Instead, access to this powerful investigative tool should be limited to members of the intelligence community with major counter-terrorism missions including, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the new Department of Homeland Security's intelligence arm.  Stiff penalties should be enacted for members of even that select community if they abuse their access.  Fear of abuse by corrupt individuals should not hinder the government's ability to complete its duty to protect Americans.

Nonetheless proponents of broader access will likely advocate the use of TIA for things such as health surveillance and aviation security.  This should be avoided.  Instead, DARPA or the Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency (HSARPA) should develop more limited spin-offs dedicated to those specific needs (i.e. to linking city and State health surveillance networks to the CDC or to cross reference airline passenger manifests with terrorist watch lists or an intelligence fusion center). 

Since 19 al-Qaeda terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, political pundits, politicians and the policy community at large have called on the intelligence community to gather better intelligence on suspected terrorists and put it to better use.  If development of DARPA's Total Information Awareness system proves successful and it is deployed under appropriate policy guidelines, it would offer a major contribution to that effort.  If Dr. Poindexter and his staff achieve all of the goals they have established for this system, it should assist the intelligence community in putting the pieces of the terrorist puzzle together.

[1] William Safire. "You Are a Suspect." The New York Times. November 14, 2002.

[2] Audrey Hudson. "A Supersnoon's Dream." The Washington Times. November 15, 2002.

[3] Ted Senator. Evidence Extraction and Link Discovery Program.

[4] Lt. Col. Doug Dyer.  Genisys.


Michael Scardaville

Former Policy Analyst