Supersnoop technology to catch terrorists will not violate civil liberties, but numerous loopholes must be closed to protect the privacy of Americans, the Pentagon said yesterday in a report issued to Congress.
The program formerly known as “Total Information Awareness,” has been changed to “Terrorism Information Awareness” after the “name created in some minds the impression that TIA was a system to be used for developing dossiers on U.S. citizens,” the report stated.
The program is run by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which in the report said it is fully committed to executing TIA in a manner that protects privacy and civil liberties.
But Congress was not so sure and voted to block funding of the data-mining program until its goals are reported to it in detail.
The program would collect personal information from driver’s licenses, airline tickets, arrest reports, passports, visas and work permits. The information would be analyzed to predict terrorist activities.
The Associated Press also reported that the program wants to include access to financial, education, medical and housing records, and biometric identification databases based on fingerprints, irises, facial shapes and gait.
The program has been criticized from the political right and left, and the detailed report did little to set aside fears that the information would not be misused.
“It is grimly appropriate that this Orwellian program is being sold to us in such an Orwellian manner,” said Barry Steinhardt, director of the technology and liberty program of the American Civil Liberties Union. “The government can’t expect us to forget everything they’ve said before about this program just by changing its name.”
David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, called the program “official spying.”
“Government surveillance of unpopular ideas has historically had an extreme and unacceptable chilling effect on exchange of ideas,” Mr. Keene said.
The report also raised numerous concerns that it stated must be addressed before the program debuts. Specifically, those concerns are what kind of personal information is collected, how and by whom it is analyzed, and how to protect against unauthorized use of the data.
Computer tools to search the data must be precise and respond to a specific query, and not grant access to data that may not be lawfully accessed, the report said.
“The potential benefits of such a tool in identifying terrorist activity could be significant. On the other hand, the potential harm that could result from misuse of this effective aggregation of large quantities of data are obvious,” the report stated.
Controls are being researched to document who looks at the data and how it is used, as well as granting permission to access the information.
“This is a situation in which the need for built-in operational safeguards to reduce the opportunities for abuse are absolutely critical,” the report said. “It will be essential to ensure that substantial security measures are in place to protect these tools from unauthorized access by hackers or other intruders.”
TIA was initiated after the September 11 attacks and is run by retired Vice Adm. John Poindexter, whose conviction for deceiving Congress in the Iran-Contra scandal was overturned.
His name and biography were removed from the program’s Web site after he was criticized as the administration’s choice to lead the agency.