DARPA's plans for data mining draw criticism

'The bottom line is, this is an important research project to determine the feasibility of using certain transactions and events to discover and respond to terrorists before they act.'

'Edward C. 'Pete' Aldridge

The Defense Department is developing a massive database to monitor consumer purchases and government transactions as part of its effort to track terrorists and their activities.

Officials in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency call the database the Total Information Awareness System. The agency is working 'to determine the feasibility of searching vast quantities of data to determine links and patterns indicative of terrorist activities,' said Edward C. 'Pete' Aldridge, undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, logistics and technology.

The project received $10 million in the fiscal 2003 budget, Aldridge said.

The technology would keep tabs on individuals as they make government transactions, such as passport and driver's license applications, and consumer purchases.

Experimental so far

Retired Rear Adm. John Poindexter, the former national security adviser to President Reagan, is heading development efforts under the Total Information Awareness System program, Aldridge said.

At a press briefing last month, Aldridge said the concept is experimental and that DARPA would simply be 'demonstrating the feasibility of this technology' and not employing it. That job, Aldridge said, would be left to the intelligence and law enforcement communities.

Aldridge said fake consumer data would be used in the development of the database. The data will be 'fabricated to resemble real-life events.' When pressed for details, he said real consumer data would be tracked when the technology is turned over to enforcement agencies.

'The bottom line is, this is an important research project to determine the feasibility of using certain transactions and events to discover and respond to terrorists before they act,' Aldridge said.

But many critics have said that the project could threaten citizens' privacy.

Wayne Crews, the director of technology studies at the Cato Institute, a Washington think-tank that promotes libertarian views, said the database would invade the public's privacy and would pose a security hazard for the DOD.

'It's bad on three fronts: civil liberties, compromising the future of electronic commerce, and it's bad for security,' Crews said.

In addition, Crews said, the massive database would be a 'honey pot of data for hackers to go after.'

Furthermore, Crews said, the data mining software now available is not suitable for such an enormous undertaking.

Not a government business

'Data mining software is best left for private markets,' he said. 'The last thing the technology market wants to see is the government dominating the data mining software business in this manner.'

Aldridge said the technology would take several years to develop. But he emphasized that in order for the United States to have an advantage in the war on terrorism, military and intelligence agencies need new technologies to track patterns that indicate terrorist activities.

'If you were a terrorist, and you wanted to conduct a terrorist act, you would undertake certain kinds of actions,' Aldridge said, such as entering the country, getting a driver's license and learning how to fly airplanes. 'We're looking for trends in transactions that are associated with some potential terrorist act,' he said.

French Caldwell, the vice president for knowledge management at Gartner Inc., a consulting firm in Stamford, Conn., said the government would have the best success in tracking terrorists if all intelligence agencies had a system in place through which they shared information. Caldwell said the original plan for the project was to help agencies share data but it shifted to tracking citizens' actions.

'The idea started out as good. Poindexter was looking at ways to use technology to break down the stovepipes of various agencies,' Caldwell said. 'Those barriers are quite real. There's still a significant problem as far as collaborating on intelligence analysis. Until those barriers are broken down, we will still have significant intelligence gaps. That's where the focus needs to be.'


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