In 2002, John Poindexter, a major outlaw in the Iran-Contra scandal, took the reins of the U.S. Defense Department’s Total Information Awareness project (TIA).x10 One of the features of TIA, was the “Terrorism Futures Market”, which would set up a web site to allow people to bet on future violent events, such as terror attacks, coups and assassinations.x11 Another feature of TIA — its core program — would collect all electronic records on any person into a massive database, and search the database to identify new terrorist suspects. Such records would include banking, shopping, email, phone calls, internet browsing, travel, educational history, medical history, veterinary history, fingerprints, retinal scans, video of one’s gait, and you-name-it. The TIA logo had the dollar bill’s pyramid with the eye on top scoping the whole world, and the inscription “scientia est potentia” (knowledge is power). The picture recalls the “enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete” that is the Ministry of Truth building in the novel 1984, and we might imagine the logo with a different inscription — “Big Brother is watching.” In 2003 news about these TIA programs got out, and the public outcry shut down the project. At that time humorist Andy Borowitz joked that the Defense Department moved Poindexter to head a new agency, “The Department of Bad Ideas”, where he could really bear down on such bizarre programs.x12 In fact, the Bush regime did move the core TIA bad idea to another department — the National Security Agency (NSA) — where it now hides in that agency’s secret budget.x13x22
So what is the status of the surviving TIA core program? The data collection part of it could be going very well. Shortly after taking office, the Bush regime started another NSA program — the illegal warrantless wiretapping at telecommunications companies.x14x23x24 In that program the agency taps into the data switches of AT&T and Verizon to watch and gather telephone and internet communications.x15x21x25 That information — who you call and email, the content of your calls and emails, what websites you visit, and so on — could be feeding the TIA database. But the terrorist identification part of TIA is likely going very poorly. Experts say the computer program would have to track 1000 false hits for one true hit — and would likely give many false positives.x16 Already, data from the NSA warrantless wiretapping has flooded the FBI with bum leads wasting agents’ time.x17 But, while it is hard to get a good terrorist suspect out of the database, it would be easy to identify a political opponent. The executive branch could use that capability to out-maneuver, embarrass, blackmail, harass or arrest such persons. The Bush executive has already used NSA data for spying on U.S. government officials, companies and news reporters.x18x19x20 So, having the will and the way, the Bush regime seems to be building the “is watching” part of the Big Brother society.
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Bush knows he could run into trouble if he doesn’t keep the American people in the dark. In 2002, for instance, when the Bush administration launched a project seeking “total information awareness” on virtually everyone on earth involved in the modern economy, the disclosure was met with public alarm.
The administration cited the terrorist threat to justify the program which involved applying advanced computer technology to analyze trillions of bytes of data on electronic transactions and communications. The goal was to study the electronic footprints left by every person in the developed world during the course of their everyday lives – from the innocuous to the embarrassing to the potentially significant.
The government could cross-check books borrowed from a library, fertilizer bought at a farm-supply outlet, X-rated movies rented at a video store, prescriptions filled at a pharmacy, sites visited on the Internet, tickets reserved for a plane, borders crossed while traveling, rooms rented at a motel, and countless other examples.
Despite the administration’s assurance that political abuses wouldn’t happen, the capability would be a huge temptation for political strategists like Karl Rove who have made clear that they view anyone not supporting Bush’s war on terror as a terrorist ally.
In 2002, the technological blueprint for this Orwellian-style project was on the drawing board at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon’s top research and development arm. DARPA commissioned a comprehensive plan for this electronic spying – and did so publicly.
“Transactional data” was to be gleaned from electronic data on every kind of activity – “financial, education, travel, medical, veterinary, country entry, place/event entry, transportation, housing, critical resources, government, communications,” according to the Web site for DARPA’s Information Awareness Office.
The program would then cross-reference this data with the “biometric signatures of humans,” data collected on individuals’ faces, fingerprints, gaits and irises. With this knowledge at its fingertips, the government would have what it called “total information awareness” about pretty much everyone.
The Information Awareness Office even boasted a logo that looked like some kind of clip art from George Orwell’s 1984. The logo showed the Masonic symbol of an all-seeing eye atop a pyramid peering over the globe, with the slogan, “scientia est potentia,” Latin for “knowledge is power.”
Though apparently unintentional, DARPA‘s choice of a giant white pyramid eerily recalled Orwell’s Ministry of Truth, “an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete, soaring up, terrace after terrace, 300 metres into the air.” The all-seeing Masonic eye could be read as “Big Brother Is Watching.”
Besides the parallels to 1984, the administration’s assurances about respecting constitutional boundaries were undercut by its provocative choice of director for the Information Awareness Office. The project was headed by President Reagan’s former national security adviser John Poindexter, who was caught flouting constitutional safeguards and federal laws in the Iran-Contra scandal of the mid-1980s.
Poindexter was the White House official who approved the transfer of profits from the sale of missiles to Iran’s Islamic fundamentalist government to Nicaraguan contra rebels for the purchase of weapons, thus circumventing the Constitution’s grant of war-making power to Congress. Under U.S. law at the time, military aid was banned to both Iran and the contras.
In 1990, Poindexter was convicted of five felonies in connection with the Iran-Contra scheme and the cover-up. But his case was overturned by a conservative-dominated three-judge appeals court panel, which voted 2-1 that the conviction was tainted by congressional immunity given to Poindexter to compel his testimony to Congress in 1987.
President Bush has admitted that he gave orders that allowed the NSA to eavesdrop on a small number of Americans without the usual requisite warrants.
But [longtime insider at the National Security Agency, Russell] Tice disagrees. He says the number of Americans subject to eavesdropping by the NSA could be in the millions if the full range of secret NSA programs is used.
“That would mean for most Americans that if they conducted, or you know, placed an overseas communication, more than likely they were sucked into that vacuum,” Tice said.
“The kind of things they are looking for are hard to find,” said Herb Edelstein, president of data-mining company Two Crows. “Terrorism is an adaptive problem. It’s pretty unlikely the next terrorist attack will be people hijacking planes and crashing them into buildings.
“The project is not going to have near-term contributions to the war on terrorism. It’s not clear this is an economically valuable way to fight terrorism.”
Simson Garfinkel, author of Database Nation: The Death of Privacy in the 21st Century, also has doubts.
“Data mining is good for the purpose of increasing sales and figuring out where to place products in stores,” he said. “This is very different from figuring out if these products are going to be used for terrorist activities.”
“With meaningful pattern recognition, the order of magnitude of errors from inferences is huge, something like ten to the third (power),” said Paul Hawken, author of The Ecology of Commerce and the chairman of information mapping software company Groxis. “There would be an incalculable expense to monitor a thousand wrong hits for one correct inference.”
In fact, Hawken said, Groxis spurned, on principle, an offer from Poindexter’s group to get involved in the project.
“We make tools for people to make sense of the information in the world, not for the world to make more information out of people,” Hawken said.
Hawken is skeptical about the project’s ability to attract top industry names. He said he knows other people, including those who have worked for the National Security Agency, who refused to work on it for ethical reasons.
“I don’t know how you profile resentment and anger, but I don’t think you do it from how many times someone goes to Wal-Mart,” he said.
And the project faces other problems.
Database fields are not standardized, and the data they contain isn’t always reliable. Names get misspelled, digits are transposed, addresses are outdated or incorrect, and few names are unique.
“The data quality problem is enormous, but what’s alarming is the danger of false positives based on incorrect data,” Edelstein said. “Think of the number of people who get in trouble with the law because they have the same name as somebody else.”
But the results of the program looked very different to some officials charged with tracking terrorism in the United States. More than a dozen current and former law enforcement and counterterrorism officials, including some in the small circle who knew of the secret eavesdropping program and how it played out at the F.B.I., said the torrent of tips led them to few potential terrorists inside the country they did not know of from other sources and diverted agents from counterterrorism work they viewed as more productive.
WMR has learned that the National Security Agency (NSA), on the orders of the Bush administration, eavesdropped on the private conversations and e-mail of its own employees, employees of other U.S. intelligence agencies — including the CIA and DIA — and their contacts in the media, Congress, and oversight agencies and offices.
Although public outrage and congressional opposition supposedly killed the TIA program in 2003, the National Journal revealed in February 2006 that the project was ended in name only, kept alive within NSA’s secret budget.
One TIA component, called the Information Awareness Prototype System, was renamed “Basketball” at NSA, but still provided the basic architecture tying together information extraction, analysis and dissemination tools developed under TIA.
Another part of TIA, called Genoa II, was shifted to NSA and re-titled “Topsail.” It builds information technologies to anticipate and pre-empt terrorist attacks.
Meanwhile, the NSA’s own data-mining program seeks to construct the largest database in the world, according to a report by USA Today. It ultimately would store the records of every phone call made in the United States and apply “social network” models to the calling patterns of Americans supposedly to match them up with patterns of known terrorists.
Whistleblower Mark Klein told Keith Olbermann that a copy of all internet traffic passing over AT&T lines was copied into a locked room at the company’s San Francisco office — to which only employees with National Security Agency clearance had access — via a cable splitting device.
“My job was to connect circuits into the splitter device which was hard-wired to the secret room,” said Klein. “And effectively, the splitter copied the entire data stream of those internet cables into the secret room — and we’re talking about phone conversations, email web browsing, everything that goes across the internet.”
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