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Total Information Awareness: Big Brother, Back with a Vengeance

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March 12, 2008

Way back in 2003, the Pentagon proposed a super-invasive, super-scary program called Total Information Awareness (TIA). TIA would’ve been a massive government database of highly personal information, including your medical and financial records, political beliefs, buying habits, school records, and records of your communications (like phone calls, emails, and web surfing). This data would then be fed into a mathematic algorithm that would somehow identify terrorists based on this information.

Admiral John Poindexter, of Iran-Contra fame, and the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (Darpa) – which is often credited with creating the Internet way back in the late 60’s – are the creators of TIA, which is even more intrusive and invasive than it sounds. Congress stopped TIA in its tracks by refusing to fund it with the Wyden Amendment, which prohibited TIA from going into effect back then, and also forbids any iteration of it from going into effect in the future.

Well, the future is now. As the Wall Street Journal reported on Monday, a close-to-the-original version of TIA is in full force, operating out of the Pentagon’s black budget, and housed at the NSA. We’ve suspected as much all along, but were never able to confirm it until Monday’s article appeared. The article states:

According to current and former intelligence officials, the spy agency now monitors huge volumes of records of domestic emails and Internet searches as well as bank transfers, credit-card transactions, travel and telephone records. The NSA receives this so-called “transactional” data from other agencies or private companies, and its sophisticated software programs analyze the various transactions for suspicious patterns. Then they spit out leads to be explored by counterterrorism programs across the U.S. government, such as the NSA’s own Terrorist Surveillance Program, formed to intercept phone calls and emails between the U.S. and overseas without a judge’s approval when a link to al Qaeda is suspected.

…The effort also ties into data from an ad-hoc collection of so-called “black programs” whose existence is undisclosed, the current and former officials say. Many of the programs in various agencies began years before the 9/11 attacks but have since been given greater reach. Among them, current and former intelligence officials say, is a longstanding Treasury Department program to collect individual financial data including wire transfers and credit-card transactions. It isn’t clear how many of the different kinds of data are combined and analyzed together in one database by the NSA. An intelligence official said the agency’s work links to about a dozen antiterror programs in all.

In response to Monday’s revelation, today we filed a FOIA request to learn as much as we can about the NSA’s role as the clearinghouse for the collection, analysis and distribution of all of this highly personal information the government has collected on its citizens.

Even those of us who have got nothing to hide have something to fear from TIA, because such mass data collection has never proved effective as a counterterrorism tool. Any FBI agent tasked with sorting through such ginormous amounts of information will tell you -off the record, of course – that programs like TIA are needle-in-a-haystack propositions: it’s unlikely that sifting through such a massive amount of data on millions of people could yield any substantive leads. It doesn’t focus law enforcement efforts; it only increases the likelihood that they’re collecting irrelevant data on innocent Americans. What it does do is find patterns in what might otherwise be totally innocuous behavior, so anyone could get caught up in it. Also, data mining is of relatively little use for terrorism investigations, because terrorists stay active by constantly changing their behavior and not conforming to patterns.

Much remains hidden about the massive surveillance program lurking within the NSA. What we do know is that the agency’s monitoring of electronic communications is only the tip of iceberg. We are indeed much closer to the midnight of a total surveillance society than previously known, but we will not go silently. We’re calling on Congress to immediately investigate this breach of its authority. This isn’t the first time the Bush administration has thumbed its nose at Congress’s oversight role. And it surely isn’t the last.

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