- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 30, 2003

The information-gathering technology project rejected by the Defense Department was canceled because no one understood that it posed no threat to the privacy of Americans, scientists said yesterday.

Researchers once housed at the Defense Advanced Research and Development Agency (DARPA) told a special Department of Defense panel that the Terrorism Information Awareness (TIA) project was so complex that it confused lawmakers and ordinary citizens.

“DARPA was caught in a ‘perfect storm’ of public opinion,” said David Jensen, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

“We are not … searching credit card histories or library records or gun ownership records or building files or dossiers on any U.S. citizens, or developing a ‘Big Brother’ system to invade the privacy of anyone,” former DARPA Deputy Director Brian Sharkey added.

Mr. Jensen and Mr. Sharkey were among a group of research contractors — many of whose projects will fold under a provision in the defense appropriations bill passed by Congress last week — testifying before the panel during a two-day hearing.

Not all agreed with Mr. Jensen. Some of the scientists suggested that DARPA in some ways had brought its fate on itself by not taking sufficient account of privacy concerns.

“We had integrated privacy concerns into our work from even before Day One — it was on the design board of the pilot project,” Latanya Sweeney of Carnegie Mellon University told United Press International. Her project, which aims to trawl medical data looking for evidence of bioterrorism, was one of several specifically excluded from closure by the appropriations bill.

Miss Sweeney, whose project was started in 2000, pointed out that before September 11, the department was acutely conscious of the potential criticism of conducting surveillance on U.S. citizens.

“They didn’t want to find themselves on the front page of the New York Times,” she said.

But after September 11, attitudes in the Pentagon changed, she added.

“The group that was developing these [other] concepts didn’t weigh privacy the same as the group who started the bioterrorism work,” Miss Sweeney said.

She said that changing this attitude and integrating privacy concerns into the research process, not closing any particular program, could protect citizens’ rights.

“Pulling the plug [on TIA] isn’t going to stop this [research],” she said. “We have to move law and policy onto the design board.”

The panel was set up by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld after TIA attracted a storm of public criticism and protests from senior lawmakers. The program, once called Total Information Awareness, was headed by retired Navy Vice Adm. John Poindexter, a former national security adviser who was convicted of lying to Congress during the Iran-Contra scandal and then pardoned.

Adm. Poindexter resigned last month after a second storm was kicked up over plans for an Internet-based market aiming to predict terrorist events by getting investors to bet on the likelihood of their occurrence.

TIA sought techniques for analyzing patterns in large databases to try to catch potential terrorists or detect terrorist activity. Critics said that there was an unacceptable risk to privacy from combining and looking for patterns in information from commercial databases — like those of credit agencies – with data from the government’s own — such as immigration, Social Security Administration or motor vehicle records.

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