Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The U.S. intelligence czar is developing a computer system capable of mining huge amounts of information about everyday events for patterns that look like terrorist planning — technology reminiscent of the discontinued Total Information Awareness (TIA) program.

Civil liberties and privacy advocates have criticized the effort, called Tangram, which is being developed by contractors working for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte.

“They are misdirecting resources towards this kind of fanciful, science-fiction project,” said Tim Sparapani, legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union, “while neglecting the basics” of good counterterrorism detective work.

Mr. Negroponte’s office declined to comment on the program, but it is described in some detail in a procurement document posted on the Web by the U.S. Air Force, and officials have said it is being tested without using any data about Americans.

The document says the system — funded for $49 million in research over the next four years — will build on previous work by U.S. intelligence agencies to develop “methods of … efficiently searching large data stores for evidence of known [terrorist] behaviors.”

An intelligence official who asked for anonymity said the system was being tested using two data sets — one artificial and the other consisting of intelligence information from the Department of Defense.

“There is nothing in there that does not comply with the regulations on U.S. persons,” said the official, referring to rules that govern what information U.S. intelligence agencies can collect, analyze and store about American citizens and legal residents.

Nonetheless, the new system is bound to attract criticism because of its similarity to the TIA program, a project run by the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. TIA also aimed to detect patterns of suspected terrorist behavior by data-mining huge stores of information about everyday transactions such as credit-card purchases, telephone calls and travel records.

In response to concerns about the program’s privacy and civil liberties implications, Congress in 2003 cut all funding for it, but research continued in different agencies, funded by classified appropriations for Pentagon intelligence agencies.

Most of that continuing research was conducted by the Advanced Research and Development Activity, formerly based at the National Security Agency but now part of Mr. Negroponte’s office. The National Journal, which first revealed the existence of Tangram last week, said ARDA would oversee the new program, too.

“The administration has flat-out ignored Congress,” Mr. Sparapani said. “They renamed it, retied the bow around and off they went.”

National Journal reported that the government last month awarded three contracts for Tangram research and development at a cost of nearly $12 million. Two of the firms receiving awards — Booz Allen Hamilton and 21st Century Technologies Inc. — worked on the TIA program. The third, SRI International, worked on one of its predecessors, the so-called Genoa project.

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