MIT lab turns a TIA-like mirror on government

Lawmakers aren't the only folks with the Terrorism Information Awareness projects in their sights.

A student project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology seeks to turn the government's proposed scrutiny of citizens back on public officials.

The MIT Media Lab's Government Information Awareness Project, which went online early this month at opengov.media.mit.edu, collects data about federal officials and industry lobbyists.

GIA's name is a play on TIA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency R&D effort to develop advanced data-mining tools that can correlate personal information from multiple databases.

'Total Information Awareness, to me, is the absolute hallmark of big government,' Media Lab assistant professor Christopher Csikszentmihalyi said, adding that he believes the nation's founders intended 'to empower the governed against the government.'

Graduate student Ryan B. McKinley is GIA's chief programmer under the direction of Csikszentmihalyi. Both are members of the lab's computing culture group.

GIA's creators say on the site, 'As the government broadens internal surveillance and collaborates with private institutions to access data on the public, it is crucial that we maintain a symmetry of accountability.'

Csikszentmihalyi said McKinley has designed parsers and crawlers to glean data from government sites and others that track political and lobbyist funding, such as OpenSecrets.org. The site also is soliciting contributions of data about voting records and other political information.

Servers like cookies

Eventually, the GIA site will link to news sites and weblogs but hasn't yet done so because 'our servers are crumbling under the onslaught of hits,' Csikszentmihalyi said. The lab has been adding a server per day since the Associated Press wrote about GIA shortly after its launch, he said.

A note on the site said some features, such as personalized alerts, are unavailable because of high demand.

About half the hits have been coming from .gov and .mil addresses, and a number of summer interns have contacted the Media Lab to correct entries for their bosses, Csikszentmihalyi said.

McKinley's computer vision algorithm watches the cable public-affairs channels C-SPAN and C-SPAN 2. When the face from the TV feed changes, the program reads the name given by the on-screen caption and tries to correlate faces with names.

GIA invites data contributions in much the same way as the Wikipedia project, at www.wikipedia.org. Like open-source software, the project seeks to build a self-sustaining digital encyclopedia from many contributors.

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