Counterterrorism project assailed by lawmakers, privacy advocates

Lawmakers, privacy advocates and civil libertarians are criticizing a controversial Defense Department research project as an invasion of personal privacy, and are questioning whether it should be scrapped.

In January, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) began a multi-year effort to look for ways that technology could be used to pre-empt terrorist attacks. Known as the Total Information Awareness (TIA) system, much of the work centers on theoretical ways to use information technology and human analysis to analyze transactions, such as credit card purchases or phone calls, to find patterns that might indicate a terrorist attack is being plotted.

The project has outraged groups that support restrictions on the use of personal data. At a press conference Monday in Washington, Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said the TIA system was the "hub" of a far-reaching effort by the government to "extend surveillance of the American public."

Rotenberg objected to the appointment of John Poindexter as the project's director. Poindexter, who brought the idea for the system to the Pentagon, served as President Ronald Reagan's national security adviser and was convicted for lying to Congress during the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s. The conviction was overturned.

Rotenberg called Poindexter "the architect of a program to extend surveillance of private databases," pointing to his involvement in a 1984 policy directive that privacy advocates and some lawmakers feared would give the National Security Agency control over privately held information. The 1987 Computer Security Act voided the directive.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., sent a letter to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Sunday, urging him to fire Poindexter. On ABC's "This Week," Schumer said Poindexter shouldn't head such a sensitive project, given his past. "If we need a 'Big Brother,' John Poindexter is the last guy on the list that I would choose," Schumer said.

In a recent interview, Robert Popp, the deputy director of the TIA system, said DARPA has made no decision about what technologies the system eventually might include. The agency is using fictional data to test some components, but ultimately DARPA will not actually build a working machine, Popp said. Rather, its mission is to build a conceptual prototype and then to share that design information with agencies that want it.

Rotenberg said "the picture coming into focus" about DARPA's work suggests the system would result in a sweeping monitoring of citizens' everyday activities. But Popp stressed that work on the system is in the early stages, and that DARPA has no authority to decide what information the government should gather or analyze. That decision would be left to individual agencies and to Congress.

Part of DARPA's role is to determine if using technology to predict terrorist attacks is even feasible. Steven Aftergood, who heads the Federation of American Scientists' projects on government secrecy and intelligence, said he doubts that technology can be precise enough to distinguish a few suspicious transactions in a sea of activity. "I don't know that they will ever be able to detect a meaningful signal above the background noise," he said.

Popp said protecting the privacy of citizens is a chief concern of the project team, which is experimenting with ways to remove a person's name from any transactional data that an unauthorized government employee might see. The agency has asked companies to propose devices that would "protect the privacy of individuals not affiliated with terrorism," according to a solicitation notice posted on DARPA's Web site.

Congressional hearings on the TIA system are likely, given the opposition of some lawmakers to the program. On Friday, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, asked that the Defense Department's inspector general review the project and examine the particulars of how Poindexter was hired.

Grassley's spokeswoman accused the Pentagon of "getting into domestic law enforcement issues" by supporting the project. Grassley wants to know whether DARPA officials have coordinated with federal law enforcement officials about the TIA system, and whether the agency received their input before funding began.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Forecasting Cloud's Future

    Conversations with Federal, State, and Local Technology Leaders on Cloud-Driven Digital Transformation

    Download
  • The Big Data Campaign Trail

    With everyone so focused on security following recent breaches at federal, state and local government and education institutions, there has been little emphasis on the need for better operations. This report breaks down some of the biggest operational challenges in IT management and provides insight into how agencies and leaders can successfully solve some of the biggest lingering government IT issues.

    Download
  • Communicating Innovation in Federal Government

    Federal Government spending on ‘obsolete technology’ continues to increase. Supporting the twin pillars of improved digital service delivery for citizens on the one hand, and the increasingly optimized and flexible working practices for federal employees on the other, are neither easy nor inexpensive tasks. This whitepaper explores how federal agencies can leverage the value of existing agency technology assets while offering IT leaders the ability to implement the kind of employee productivity, citizen service improvements and security demanded by federal oversight.

    Download
  • IT Transformation Trends: Flash Storage as a Strategic IT Asset

    MIT Technology Review: Flash Storage As a Strategic IT Asset For the first time in decades, IT leaders now consider all-flash storage as a strategic IT asset. IT has become a new operating model that enables self-service with high performance, density and resiliency. It also offers the self-service agility of the public cloud combined with the security, performance, and cost-effectiveness of a private cloud. Download this MIT Technology Review paper to learn more about how all-flash storage is transforming the data center.

    Download
  • Ongoing Efforts in Veterans Health Care Modernization

    This report discusses the current state of veterans health care

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.