Uncle Sam Is Watching You

John Ashcroft
John Ashcroft; drawing by David Levine


In October 2003, Congress voted to end Total Information Awareness (TIA), a Pentagon plan designed to analyze vast amounts of computer data about all of us in order to search for patterns of terrorist activity. At the time, the vote in Congress seemed one of the most notable victories for privacy since September 11. Computers record virtually everything we do these days—whom we call or e-mail, what books and magazines we read, what Web sites we search, where we travel, which videos we rent, and everything we buy by credit card or check. The prospect of the military and security agencies constantly trolling through all of this information about innocent citizens in hopes of finding terrorists led Congress to ban spending on the program.

Admittedly, much of the credit for TIA’s defeat has to go to the Pentagon’s public relations department, which not only gave the program its less than reassuring name, but also came up with a logo consisting of a pyramid topped by a large, digitized eye and the Latin motto Scientia Est Potentia, or “Knowledge Is Power.” George Orwell and Michel Foucault could hardly have done better. It also helped that the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which developed the plan, was headed by John Poindexter, who had been convicted of lying to Congress in the Iran-contra affair, and whose conviction had been overturned on appeal only on a technicality. The vote to kill TIA came shortly after DARPA floated the idea of creating a market for betting on terrorist attacks and other disasters. Still, the fact that Congress rejected TIA seemed to suggest that it was willing to stand up for privacy even in the face of the threat of catastrophic terrorism.

But reports of the death of TIA were greatly exaggerated. Federal programs to collect and search vast computer databases for security purposes continue virtually unabated, inside and outside the Pentagon. The congressional ban did not apply to the Pentagon’s classified budget, so the military’s development of programs to collect and analyze computer data has simply moved behind closed doors. Congress has directed the Department of Homeland Security to develop “data mining and other advanced analytic tools…to access, receive and analyze data, detect and identify threats of terrorism against the United States.” And with federal funding, several states are cooperating in the Multistate Antiterrorism Regional Information Exchange System, or MATRIX, which links law enforcement records with other government and private databases in order to identify suspected terrorists.

The private firm that is running MATRIX, Sesint, based in Florida, previously compiled a “terrorist index” of 120,000 persons using

such factors as age, gender, ethnicity, credit history, “investigational data,” information about pilot and driver licenses, and connections to “dirty” addresses known to have been used by other suspects.

Thus, despite the apparent victory for civil libertarians in stopping TIA itself, data mining remains a central…

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