Here is an article over at Wired magazine that discusses the demise of the Terrorism Information Awareness program that is part of DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). This program was begun within the last two years with the goal of being able to search and cross-reference vast quantities of information in multiple databases to try and detect terrorist and other criminal activity by Americans and foreign nationals on American soil.
The program was once called Total Information Awareness, but because of the intense political fallout over privacy and civil liberties concerns, the name was changed recently to Terrorism Information Awareness. The project was the brain child of John Poindexter, former National Security Advisor to President Reagan, who resigned from that post because of his involvement in Iran-Contra. He has since resigned from DARPA because of the backlash over TIA.
The death of the pogram occurred as a result of language in the new 2004 defense appropriations bill that disbanded the Information Awareness Office in DARPA, which was developing the program. The bill did leave open the possibility that the tools already developed could be used in searching for foreign sources of terrorism. Some of the tools, the ability to automatically translate foreign-language documents and broadcasts, wargames software to model potential terrorist activities and the possible responses, and software to detect bioterrorism more rapidly, were given funding to continue at DARPA.
This is a good day for civil liberties and other privacy concerns. I am as yet undecided about whether I think it is a good day for the safety of Americans. The potential for abuse of such a system as TIA is extremely high. In general, I am opposed to the idea of actively seeking to cross reference so many disparate sources of data. It is too tempting for law enforcement to abuse the system. Further, what would prevent a pattern from emerging that targeted an innocent person? While this type of program is not close to the psychic interception of murder that is presented in Steven Speilberg’s, The Minority Report, it is certainly headed down a path that could potentially lead to the legalized harrasment of innocent Americans doing nothing but going about their daily lives in a way that triggered some sort of pattern to watch.