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:

  • Sponsored by G Suite

    Cross-Agency Teamwork, Anytime and Anywhere

    Dan McCrae, director of IT service delivery division, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

    Download
  • Data-Centric Security vs. Database-Level Security

    Database-level encryption had its origins in the 1990s and early 2000s in response to very basic risks which largely revolved around the theft of servers, backup tapes and other physical-layer assets. As noted in Verizon’s 2014, Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR)1, threats today are far more advanced and dangerous.

    Download
  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

    Download
  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

    Download

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