Senate votes to kill funds for antiterror data mining

The Senate this week voted to wipe out funding for a Pentagon data mining program that the White House says is a critical weapon needed for the war on terrorism.

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) introduced an amendment to the Defense Appropriations Bill on July 14 that would effectively eliminate funding for the Terrorism Information Awareness (TIA) program being developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The Senate passed the bill unanimously with the amendment intact.

Since its inception, TIA (formerly known as the Total Information Awareness program) has drawn criticism from privacy rights advocates who fear it would allow authorities to rifle through the electronic transactions of millions of law-abiding U.S. citizens in an effort to uncover the activities of suspected terrorists. That fear stems from the program’s intent to rely on a mix of government, intelligence and commercial databases to mine electronic transactions, such as airline-ticket purchases and car rentals, for indications of potential terrorist activity.

‘Synthetic Data’ Only

TIA development and testing has been under way for several months at the Army’s Intelligence and Security Command at Fort Belvoir, Va. Program officials at DARPA maintain that the testing process relies on synthetic data and that the final system would focus not on collection but on analysis of “legally obtained” data. Furthermore, data would first be made anonymous before intelligent software agents, not human beings, could conduct analysis, according to program documents obtained by Computerworld.

The House version of the bill, passed earlier this month, imposed advance notification and authorization requirements on the program before funding could be used to deploy any part of the system. The program’s fate will be determined by a joint House-Senate conference session.

“From an intelligence policy point of view, something like TIA could help to break down the arbitrary barriers to information-sharing that have long existed among government agencies,” said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington. “But DARPA was slow to address the privacy concerns raised by the program. Now they are paying the price.”