The Chill from the Pentagon: The Total Information Awareness Project

The Pentagon assures us we have nothing to fear from its new Total Information Awareness (TIA) counterterrorism project, a colossal effort to assemble and "mine" massive databases of our credit-card purchases, car rentals, airline tickets, official records, and the like.  The aim is to monitor the public’s whereabouts, movements, and transactions to glean suspicious patterns 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 us against unreasonable searches, forbids a total surveillance society if that’s where this project’s directors intend to go.

It may be appropriate for the government to make use of readily available public information.  Yet even here, it’s important to remember that such information, whether driver’s license, Social Security, or tax information, is mandated by numerous agencies for specific purposes — not general law enforcement — and should not be routinely combined for such purposes without a specific court order.

The reason?  Government has become too large and pervasive. TIA’s commitment not to monitor innocent individuals is not credible.  There are so many compulsory cradle-to-grave databases that the mere act of combining, sorting, sifting and interpreting them may no longer be possible without violating our Fourth Amendment rights.

The TIA’s logo features an edited version of the Great Seal of the United States: The 13-block pyramid (think 13 original colonies) topped by the Eye of God.  The original carries the phrase (translated from Latin) "A New Order of the Ages," reflecting a principled view of individual freedom quite alien to that of the Orwellian TIA office.  The TIA’s version perverts the proud seal that originally symbolized our freedom.  The "eye" is no longer God’s, but the federal government’s, surveying the entire globe in a single glance. TIA’s new slogan?  "Knowledge is Power."  But whose knowledge? And power to do what?

The information economy and electronic commerce increasingly depend on secure and specialized private databases, and TIA could undermine those as well.  Corporate America needs to be able to make credible privacy assurances to the public.  People need to know that the data they relinquish is confined to an agreed-upon business, transactional or record-keeping purpose, and isn’t automatically included in a government database.  If the TIA project ends up routinely requiring banks, airlines, hotels, Internet-service providers, and other businesses to hand over such private information, it will undermine evolving commercial-privacy standards, drive transactions underground, and make criminals out of ordinary people who simply want to be left alone.

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

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

An aggressive TIA project will threaten privacy and chill healthy civil disobedience.  Ironically, the project could also increase security risks.  Even the Pentagon’s resources are limited: Most people are not terrorists, and it can be a costly diversion to attempt to monitor the torrent of chatter that will be generated by this misguided program. Terrorists already immerse themselves in mainstream society, even using their real names and official government documents.  They can learn and anticipate the trigger patterns that will supposedly generate red flags, and then avoid them.  You won’t see terrorists buying one-way airline tickets, for example.  Because terrorists will resemble ordinary people, TIA inevitably 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 its information databases.  Since 9/11, hackers have gained access to secret Department of Defense satellite photos and nuclear missile information.  A massive TIA database will be an irresistible target for hackers who, based on the track record so far, will succeed in breaching it.

If we’re interested in protecting America’s security and critical infrastructure, we need to target documented security lapses like lax background checks of airline-security personnel and foreigners in flight-training schools.  It’s one thing to give up privacy for security if there’s no other choice.  With TIA we may be sacrificing privacy for no security benefit at all.