Total Information Awareness: taking the fiction out of science fiction

It sounds like science fiction. But this time it isn't George Orwell's Big Brother or Tom Cruise in "Minority Report" - it's "Total Information Awareness" (TIA), the Pentagon's blueprint for the total surveillance society.

When it comes to privacy, people have long argued about who's worse: the government, or corporations? TIA moots the question. The whiz kids at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA, the Pentagon's technology lab) are building an unholy alliance between government and big business to snuff out your privacy.

In a computerized society, we always leave electronic tracks: financial, housing, education, travel, medical, veterinary, transportation, communication, and so on. Use a credit card or a driver's license? The government wants to know what you do with them. Buy a gun? Visit a doctor? Have any drug prescriptions? Keep money in a bank? Make phone calls? Use the Internet? Big Brother wants to know about that, too. And it might not even need to suck all that data into one big computer. The Pentagon wants to mine all that data where it sits, in thousands of private computers across the country.

Of course, the Pentagon is also a big fan of surveillance technology. The familiar video-camera will see us in a new light. Today's clumsy face-recognition software misfires when people wear hats or sunglasses. The new Human ID at a Distance program is working on computer technologies to identify us by the color of our skin, the size and shape of our bodies, the way we walk, even the way we smile or frown. We won't need humans to watch video screens or hours of boring videotape. Computers will do the watching to figure out who was where and who is "suspicious."

The same goes for what we say or write. The Pentagon wants computers to understand language. We won't need human beings to eavesdrop, wiretap, search e-mail, or know what we read. No more agents in white vans: computers can do it for us faster and cheaper.

Think of it as equal-opportunity surveillance. It doesn't matter whether you've done anything wrong. TIA assumes that everything we do must be looked at. After all, anything could be suspicious if they stare at it hard enough.

And that's the other half of the problem: Kafka, not Orwell. TIA is a big suspicion-generating machine. Who decides what's suspicious? Take your pick: faceless bureaucrats or a computer. What if "they" decide you're suspicious? How will you clear your name? Think about all the mistakes in computer databases. Will it be your word against the computer's?

The Pentagon says it's working on privacy safeguards that could separate who we are from what we do. But do we really trust the government to mine our data and conduct surveillance without peeking? The government also told us the Social Security Number wouldn't be a national ID number.

Experts from the libertarian Cato Institute to the Markle Foundation say that even if you ignore the likely abuses of power, huge data-mining programs will produce huge numbers of false leads that will unjustly label innocent Americans as suspects.

The best argument that TIA's defenders have is that it's only a research program. Privacy advocates are inventing horror stories, they say, before the program is even running. The truth is, the Pentagon has been working on the projects in TIA for years, and some prototypes are being tested by government agencies now.

What's more, the government is planning "TIA-Lite" for air travelers, CAPPS II (Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System), which will look at airline, hotel, car-rental, and credit card records. Not as sweeping, but a lot closer to reality: the government may have CAPPS II running this year. If CAPPS II morphs into something bigger, don't say we didn't warn you.

Conservative columnist William Safire rallied the opposition when he quoted the TIA motto - "knowledge is power" - and said, "Exactly: the government's infinite knowledge is its power over you." Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Russell Feingold (D-Wisc.) are calling for hearings and a moratorium on the program. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said that when he "read George Orwell's '1984' years ago, I laughed at any prospect that our society would ever be subject to that kind of constant surveillance. But that's where we are now. We have to look at this operation very carefully, and maybe it shouldn't be allowed to go ahead at all."

After Sept. 11, many people welcomed security measures that invade privacy. "We've got nothing to hide," they said. Well, the Pentagon is taking you at your word. If you pooh-pooh privacy, Total Information Awareness is for you.

This op-ed by Lee Tien, Senior Staff Attorney, ran in the Freelance Star on January 26, 2003.