Government knows all

The U.S. Department of Defense’s proposed Total Information Awareness (TIA) project, a prototype program designed to mine information from commercial databases and personal e-mails to wage war on terrorism, has raised concerns among privacy advocates and technology experts. Echoing those worries, Congress placed a moratorium on the project pending additional research. But regardless of Big Brother-type fears, additional questions persist over whether today’s technology is advanced enough to mine mountains of information and track terrorists without generating false accusations.

TIA is the brainchild of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Information Awareness Office. DARPA argued that TIA isn’t a “supercomputer to snoop.” It’s an experimental system that’ll use language translation, data search and pattern recognition to ferret out terrorist activity.

Since the 1980s, SRA International President and CEO Ernst Volgenau has been working with text mining–the reading of documents and extraction of data in search of patterns. He thinks the government has some good ideas, but he has some reservations. An increasing number of government agencies are turning to off-the-shelf software to run many programs, but much of this software is designed for commercial use–not for handling highly classified government secrets.

Volgenau is also concerned about such a large system generating false positives or false negatives as well as its ability to detect new patterns. Consider antivirus software. If your system is breached by an attack pattern, your antivirus software teaches itself to detect it. But if a new attack pattern is developed, your software might not detect it.

While the process of data mining is simple, says David Smith, product manager for data-mining software company Insightful, collecting it from resources with varying structures–for example, credit card numbers–is difficult. Looking for trends in a database of phone calls is one thing, but searching e-mails with random text is much harder, Smith says.

Aside from the technological challenges, there are privacy issues. Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, thinks the TIA program “is opposed to the constitutional safeguards of the Fourth Amendment.” Rotenberg views safeguarding political freedom as paramount.

Barbara Simons, cochair of the U.S. Public Policy Committee of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), says the Pentagon has not been forthcoming with details on who will manage and have access to information mined by TIA as well as specifics on how the Pentagon plans to build the system. “Whenever there are large databases about people, there is a risk that they are going to be compromised…and we don’t know precisely what [the Pentagon] has in mind,” says Simons. Members of ACM were so troubled by TIA’s possible security risks that they wrote a letter to Congress voicing their concerns.