Several federal agencies are using the personal data of U.S. citizens to pinpoint terrorist activity, a practice that a secretive Pentagon program was pursuing before Congress axed its funding amid fears it would be used to spy on Americans.
Congress killed the Pentagon’s Total Information Awareness (TIA) project to create a supercomputer and sift through the private information of U.S. citizens, calling it a vast violation of privacy.
The Defense Department says it has not shared the data-mining technology it researched for the TIA project, but similar supersnoop programs using advanced technology are under development.
The funding of such endeavors by the Homeland Security Department, the Defense Department, the Justice Department and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has angered privacy advocates and civil libertarians.
The personal information of millions of airline passengers has been used in two government data-mining studies to predict terrorist activity, another program is moving a step closer to “scoring” the potential of all airline passengers on a terrorism scale and a vast database containing billions of private records held by a commercial company is now available to law enforcement at all levels of government.
“These programs are turning every American into suspects and creating detailed dossiers on their lives,” said Barry Steinhardt, director of the technology and privacy program at the American Civil Liberties Union.
“The legend of TIA is that the technological impulse still exists to gather the separate strands of our lives that are documented in government and private databases to create some sort of profile on us,” Mr. Steinhardt said.
Congress scrapped funding of TIA after a public outcry about privacy and civil-liberty concerns in 2002 and totally dismantled the project last year after more questionable programs were exposed.
“There was a great deal of applause last year when folks thought TIA was dead, but I cautioned people to hold their applause because it has been my experience that these things never die,” said Bob Barr, 21st Century Liberties chairman for Freedom and Privacy at the American Conservative Union.
“There is an insatiable desire on the part of Washington agencies and big business to constantly look at newer and more efficient ways to gather, store and manipulate data on people,” said Mr. Barr, a former Republican congressman from Georgia.
Even the name of the program, Total Information Awareness, drew criticism and prompted the agency to change it to Terrorism Information Awareness.
“TIA will live on in the broad sense,” said Marcia Hofmann, staff counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). “Just because the name has been killed and the specific project killed, it doesn’t mean the idea is dead. We will see it continue in smaller projects throughout government in different agencies, that is what I see as its legacy.”
Data-mining technology was central to the TIA project to identify and predict terrorism, but critics called it an unprecedented invasion of privacy and civil liberties.
Government officials are trying to distance their programs from the term “data mining.”