The Pentagon’s Total Information Awareness Project: Americans Under the Microscope?

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The Pentagon assures us we have nothing to fear from its newTotal Information Awareness (TIA) counterterrorism project, acolossal effort to assemble and "mine" massive databases of ourcredit-card purchases, car rentals, airline tickets, officialrecords, and the like. The aim is to monitor the public'swhereabouts, movements, and transactions to glean suspiciouspatterns that indicate terrorist planning and other shenanigans.Well, we shouldn't always trust the assurance of the Pentagon.

The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which safeguards usagainst unreasonable searches, forbids a total surveillance societyif that's where this project's directors intend to go.

It may be appropriate for the government to make use of readilyavailable public information. Yet even here, it's important toremember that such information, whether driver's license, SocialSecurity, or tax information, is mandated by numerous agencies forspecific purposes-not general law enforcement-and should not beroutinely combined for such purposes without a specific courtorder.

The reason? Government has become too large and pervasive. TIA'scommitment not to monitor innocent individuals is not credible.There are so many compulsory cradle-to-grave databases that themere act of combining, sorting, sifting and interpreting them mayno longer be possible without violating our Fourth Amendmentrights.

The TIA's logo featuresan edited version of the Great Seal of the United States: The13-block pyramid (think 13 original colonies) topped by the Eye ofGod. The original carries the phrase (translated from Latin) "A NewOrder of the Ages," reflecting a principled view of individualfreedom quite alien to that of the Orwellian TIA office. The TIA'sversion perverts the proud seal that originally symbolized ourfreedom. The "eye" is no longer God's, but the federalgovernment's, surveying the entire globe in a single glance. TIA'snew slogan? "Knowledge is Power." But whose knowledge? And power todo what?

The information economy and electronic commerce increasinglydepend on secure and specialized private databases, and TIA couldundermine those as well. Corporate America needs to be able to makecredible privacy assurances to the public. People need to know thatthe data they relinquish is confined to an agreed-upon business,transactional or record-keeping purpose, and isn't automaticallyincluded in a government database. If the TIA project ends uproutinely requiring banks, airlines, hotels, Internet-serviceproviders, and other businesses to hand over such privateinformation, it will undermine evolving commercial-privacystandards, drive transactions underground, and make criminals outof ordinary people who simply want to be left alone.

Only two years ago, President Bush entered office promising toprotect medical and financial privacy. A number of congressmenstill fret over Internet privacy, and people like Rep. Dick Armey(R-Tex.) defiantly protested a national ID card and othersurveillance tools.

The Pentagon seems willing to ignore that sentiment. While theHomeland Security bill banned a national ID card, the TIA projectwould seem to accomplish all the data aggregation that would make anational ID both feasible and irresistible to policymakers. Not aroad to travel lightly.

An aggressive TIA project will threaten privacy and chillhealthy civil disobedience. Ironically, the project could alsoincrease security risks. Even the Pentagon's resources are limited:Most people are not terrorists, and it can be a costly diversion toattempt to monitor the torrent of chatter that will be generated bythis misguided program. Terrorists already immerse themselves inmainstream society, even using their real names and officialgovernment documents. They can learn and anticipate the triggerpatterns that will supposedly generate red flags, and then avoidthem. You won't see terrorists buying one-way airline tickets, forexample. Because terrorists will resemble ordinary people, TIAinevitably means magnifying-glass surveillance of ordinary folks,wasting more time, all in a vicious, misdirected circle.

The TIA program contradicts federal cybersecurity goals, too.The government has proven notoriously bad at safeguarding itsinformation databases. Since 9/11, hackers have gained access tosecret Department of Defense satellite photos and nuclear missileinformation. A massive TIA database will be an irresistible targetfor hackers who, based on the track record so far, will succeed inbreaching it.

If we're interested in protecting America's security andcritical infrastructure, we need to target documented securitylapses like lax background checks of airline-security personnel andforeigners in flight-training schools. It's one thing to give upprivacy for security if there's no other choice. With TIA we may besacrificing privacy for no security benefit at all.

Clyde Wayne Crews Jr. (wcrews@cato.org) is director of technology studies at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C. This essay originally appeared on National Review Online on November 25, 2002. To subscribe, or see a list of all previous TechKnowledge articles, visit www.cato.org/tech/tk-index.html.