Head of anti-terrorism panel wary of data mining

The Pentagon's proposed Total Information Awareness (TIA) project must be watched "very closely" to ensure that Americans' civil liberties do not fall victim to massive data-mining tools that could be used to identify the electronic transactions of potential terrorists, the chairman of a high-profile anti-terrorism commission said Monday.

"This is a program that's designed to begin to accumulate data from a great many sources and accumulate it in one place," said former Virginia Gov. James Gilmore, chairman of the four-year-old Advisory Panel to Assess Domestic Response Capabilities for Terrorism Involving Weapons of Mass Destruction, commonly known as the Gilmore Commission.

"The goal here would be to watch this very closely and make sure that ... there are proper restraints placed upon it so that it's doing the job against terrorism [without] invading the civil liberties of the American people," Gilmore added during a homeland security panel discussion sponsored by the Heritage Foundation. "These are very, very tough issues."

TIA is being developed by a division of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The office is researching ways to sift massive amounts of electronic data in order to track a wide range of "signatures" left by potential terrorists, such as credit-card purchases, pilot's license applications or scientific degrees that could indicate expertise with weapons of mass destruction.

But Gilmore said keeping a watchful eye over such a program could be difficult. "If you're going to have a data-mining organization that's designed to find terrorists and find enemy information on terrorists, then you don't want to tell anybody about it," Gilmore said. "But if you don't want to tell anybody about it, then how do you know what they're doing? So this is a big challenge."

Gilmore said federal, state and local officials also must be vigilant in guarding civil liberties as they implement information-sharing and communications technologies.

"The trick here is to find the best possible approach ... to utilize technology and communication to make sure that information can be properly shared, make sure that cybersecurity is in place so that it is not invaded ... and do all of it while maintaining America's virtues and civil liberties," Gilmore said. "Good luck, but that is the challenge that is before us today."

Bush administration officials are addressing many of those issues as they develop an information architecture for the new Homeland Security Department, according to Lee Holcomb, the White House Office of Homeland Security's director of information infrastructure.

"Our goal is to provide the right information to the right people, all the time," Holcomb said. "That is a tremendous goal, and there are a lot of legal issues, as well as technical issues, in making that happen."