Commentary

Total Information Awareness: Back to the Future

By Charles V. Peña
December 7, 2002
The idea of “total information awareness,” or TIA, has come under fire lately. And for good reason. This new system for intelligence gathering could backfire and lead to a repetition of the intelligence failures America experienced prior to 9/11.

TIA is a Pentagon program designed to build a large-scale counter-terrorism database from myriad sources, including e-mail, electronic and credit card purchases, airline travel, rental cars, telephone calling cards, gun purchases, and medical records.

Supporters argue that it’s an advanced computer tool intended to help catch would-be terrorists by looking for links and patterns indicative of terrorist activity. Critics are concerned that the TIA program would be the first step towards a surveillance state and allow the U.S. government to monitor and spy on its own citizens. For example, some critics have written the following:

  • “[W]e do not provide the government with phone jacks outside our homes for unlimited wiretaps. Why, then, should we grant government the Orwellian capability to listen at will and in real time to our communications across the Web?”
  • “The administration’s interest in e-mail is a wholly unhealthy precedent, especially given this administration’s track record on FBI files and IRS snooping. Every medium by which people communicate can be subject to exploitation by those with illegal intentions. Nevertheless, this is no reason to hand Big Brother the keys to unlock our e-mail diaries, open our ATM records, read our medical records, or translate our international communications.”

You would think such “alarmist” rhetoric is coming from groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, or the Southeastern Legal Foundation — all of whom have been critical of TIA.

You would be wrong.

Those words were written in October 1997 by then-Senator John Ashcroft. He was taking issue with the Clinton administration’s views on the Internet and proposed regulations and controls. Curiously, today, Attorney General Ashcroft has been deafeningly silent on the issue of TIA. Apparently, what’s not good for the goose is okay for the gander.

But Ashcroft’s concerns about the future of the Internet then are as valid when it comes to TIA now. Americans should not blindly give in to fear and a sense of vulnerability by giving the federal government (in particular, the executive branch) ever-expansive powers all in the name of homeland security and fighting the war on terrorism. The fundamental question is not whether TIA is a good idea right now because we must cope with a new terrorist threat. The question is whether TIA is a good idea, period — whether in this, the previous, or successive administrations.

Concerns about TIA are threefold.

First and foremost is the issue of civil liberties. If government had a pristine record and this was the first and only proposal that potentially threatens civil liberties, perhaps the cause for concern might be less. But TIA is being proposed by an administration with a penchant for secrecy and a “trust us, we know what we’re doing” attitude. This same administration also gave us the USA PATRIOT Act, which gives the executive branch extraordinary power absent judicial checks and balances. And even though it was explicitly prohibited in the Homeland Security Act, the administration had previously proposed the TIPS (Terrorist Information and Prevention System), which would have made us a nation of snitches.

Second, how might TIA affect the information economy and electronic commerce? TIA is built on the premise of having access to transactional and record-keeping data. But people need to know that private information handed over to Internet service providers, banks, airlines, hotels, and other businesses will not routinely be given to the government and stored in a centralized database that — despite cybersecurity — could be hacked.

Third, how effective would TIA be in identifying and catching terrorists? TIA assumes that terrorists act according to certain patterns. If terrorist activity is static and unchanging, then the past could be predictive of the future. But the nature of terrorists is that they morph and adapt — so they will likely learn the cues and patterns TIA is looking for and then avoid them. And this would increase the likelihood that TIA will mistakenly identify ordinary people as terrorists.

One final caution about TIA: It’s being touted as a solution to “connecting the dots” of intelligence data that weren’t connected prior to Sept. 11. But another major intelligence shortcoming was over-reliance on technology and not enough human intelligence. The U.S. government needs to be careful about going back to the future with TIA and falling into the same trap.

Charles V. Peña is senior defense policy analyst at the Cato Institute.