Total Information Awareness Strikes Back
Government surveillance and data mining programs, it seems, never die. They just get renamed. So it has been with the much maligned airline screening program, which was originally called “CAPPS II.” It was canned, and a new program was started called “Secure Flight.” Recently I blogged about Secure Flight being canned, and I predicted that it would soon be reincarnated. That hasn’t happened just yet . . . but wait . . . it will. It’s a pattern.
Remember back in 2002, when a program called Total Information Awareness (TIA) came to light. TIA was a plan to create a massive government database of personal information which would then be data mined. The project had a website, and its logo (pictured) had the words “knowledge is power” in Latin. There was a considerable public outcy when news of TIA made its way through the media. William Safire wrote a blistering op-ed in the New York Times attacking TIA. In 2003, Congress voted to deny it funding. The program was ended.
But I was skeptical. In my book, The Digital Person, I wrote:
While public attention has focused on the Total Information Awareness project, the very same goals and techniques of the program continue to be carried out less systemically by various government agencies and law enforcement officials. We are already closer to Total Information Awareness than we might think.
I hate to say “I told ya so,” but TIA lives. It has been broken up into pieces with nifty names like Genoa II, Basketball, and Topsail. As the National Journal now reports:
Research under the Defense Department’s Total Information Awareness program — which developed technologies to predict terrorist attacks by mining government databases and the personal records of people in the United States — was moved from the Pentagon’s research-and-development agency to another group, which builds technologies primarily for the National Security Agency, according to documents obtained by National Journal and to intelligence sources familiar with the move. The names of key projects were changed, apparently to conceal their identities, but their funding remained intact, often under the same contracts.
It is no secret that some parts of TIA lived on behind the veil of the classified intelligence budget. However, the projects that moved, their new code names, and the agencies that took them over haven’t previously been disclosed. Sources aware of the transfers declined to speak on the record for this story because, they said, the identities of the specific programs are classified.
Two of the most important components of the TIA program were moved to the Advanced Research and Development Activity, housed at NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Md., documents and sources confirm. One piece was the Information Awareness Prototype System, the core architecture that tied together numerous information extraction, analysis, and dissemination tools developed under TIA. The prototype system included privacy-protection technologies that may have been discontinued or scaled back following the move to ARDA.
A $19 million contract to build the prototype system was awarded in late 2002 to Hicks & Associates, a consulting firm in Arlington, Va., that is run by former Defense and military officials. Congress’s decision to pull TIA’s funding in late 2003 “caused a significant amount of uncertainty for all of us about the future of our work,” Hicks executive Brian Sharkey wrote in an e-mail to subcontractors at the time. “Fortunately,” Sharkey continued, “a new sponsor has come forward that will enable us to continue much of our previous work.” Sources confirm that this new sponsor was ARDA. Along with the new sponsor came a new name. “We will be describing this new effort as ‘Basketball,’ ” Sharkey wrote, apparently giving no explanation of the name’s significance. Another e-mail from a Hicks employee, Marc Swedenburg, reminded the company’s staff that “TIA has been terminated and should be referenced in that fashion.”
The reincarnation of Total Information Awareness seems to be part of a common theme with the Bush Administration. No matter whether there’s a law or whether Congress has explicitly repudiated a program, the response is to just keep on truckin’. When the representatives of the people in a democracy emphatically vote to end a program, shouldn’t that be the end of it? What part of “no” doesn’t this Administration understand?
Hat tip: Kerr