Privacy Invasions R Us
Since 9/11, domestic spying projects have become as American as apple pie, the 4th of July and baseball. And like baseball in the age of free agency -- when eligible players can switch teams when their contracts expire -- it's difficult to follow the multitude of spy ops without a scorecard. With "The Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003," otherwise known as the Patriot Act II, now under consideration by Congress, now is an opportune time to review some of the projects offered up by the Bush Administration since 9/11. Not every cranky proposal has passed muster: Some have already been kyboshed; some are operational; and some are still in development.
Let's start with the USA Patriot Act -- whose full name is "Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism." The Patriot Act was introduced by the administration, sailed through Congress and signed into law less than two months after 9/11. It essentially gave the government "new power to wiretap phones, confiscate property of suspected terrorists, spy on its own citizens without judicial review, conduct secret searches, snoop on the reading habits of library users," describes Matt Welch, the Los Angeles correspondent for the National Post, and an editor of the L.A. Examiner.
Patriot Act II aims to "fill in the holes."
There are Terrorist Watch Lists currently being maintained by nine federal agencies. These lists, while not standardized, contain a "wide variety of data" including biographical information and, in some cases, biometric data such as fingerprints. An April 2003 General Accounting Office (GAO) Report, concluded that "the federal government's approach to developing and using terrorist and criminal watch lists in performing its border security mission is diffuse and nonstandard."
Early in 2002, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced his intentions to expand the Neighborhood Watch program. He earmarked $1.9 million in federal funds to help the National Sheriff's Association double the number of participant groups to 15,000 nationwide. Neighborhood Watch, which began as a fairly low-key crime-prevention tool focused on neighborhood break-ins and burglaries, was earmarked for a broader role -- surveillance in the service of the "war on terrorism."
Highway Watch was established in 1998 by the American Trucking Association for truckers to report on a variety of common highway situations -- stranded motorists, drunk drivers, changing road conditions, poor signage, accidents, etcetera. Now, watching for suspicious terrorist activity is a major part of its activities.
Recently, the Transportation Security Administration announced it is developing a system called the Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening Program II (CAPPS II), which will screen names, addresses, birth dates and other data regarding passengers.
Local police departments in a number of cities have re-instituted domestic surveillance programs that had been barred after revelations that the government had spied on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other so-called subversive individuals and groups.
Some cities are experimenting with e-surveillance, which allows residents to log on to their computers and monitor strategically placed video cams for criminal or terrorist activities.
There are a number of what could be called "big-ticket items" under development: DARPA's controversial Total Information Awareness became Terrorism Information Awareness and is now facing extinction; the granddaddy of all neighbor-versus-neighbor spy-ops, Operation TIPS, was killed by Congress but appears to have morphed into something called the Talon project -- overseen by the omnipresent Paul Wolfowitz; and LifeLog, a project that aims to gather as much information about an individual's activities as possible, is also under construction.
Total... er, Terrorism Information Awareness
Last fall, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon's research arm, unveiled its Total Information Awareness (TIA) project. This project was the brainchild of retired Admiral John Poindexter, who had been working as a DARPA contractor at the Arlington, VA-based Syntek Technologies, Inc. In November 2002, the Washington Post reported that Syntek "helped develop technology to search through large amounts of data."
The veteran of Iran-Contra veteran intended Total Information Awareness to be the mother of all data retrieval systems, sweeping information garnered from e-mail, Internet use, travel, credit-card purchases, telephone and bank records, driver's licenses and much more, into one very smart database.
Enough of a stink was raised about TIA that DARPA went back to the drawing board. In late May, the agency issued a 108-page report, which Lee Tien, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation found "disappointing." Tien told Wired News that "after more than a hundred pages, you don't know anything more about whether TIA will work or whether your civil liberties will be safe against it. DARPA is constantly trying to assuage privacy concerns. Their mantra is, 'We always operate within current law.'"
DARPA came up with one change -- they gave it a new name. Right-to-privacy advocates won't have Total Information Awareness to kick around any more. Conceding that the original name may have freaked out many Americans who hold dear the right to privacy, the Pentagon rechristened the project the "Terrorism Information Awareness" program -- a name DARPA hoped would silence the critics.
According to the TIA Web site, "The goal of the TIA program is to revolutionize the ability of the United States to detect, classify and identify foreign terrorists -- and decipher their plans -- and thereby enable the U.S. to take timely action to successfully preempt and defeat terrorist acts."
"While it's not even clear if the technology exists to make TIA work," Cynthia Webb pointed out at washingtonpost.com, "the Pentagon is already dedicating serious cash to the endeavor: $9.2 million is budgeted for the program this year; $20 million next fiscal year and $24.5 million in 2005,".
The cosmetic changes by DARPA may not have been enough to save TIA. The Senate recently denied all funds for the Terrorism Information Awareness program.
Snipping Operation TIPS
Last year, the Department of Justice, in concert with several other agencies, was on the cusp of launching Operation TIPS (the Terrorist Information and Prevention System), a project that aimed to enlist one million workers to act as extra eyes and ears for the president's war on terrorism. A wave of negative pre-launch publicity from privacy advocates, civil libertarians, liberal and conservative legislators and newspaper editorialists forced the government to moonwalk on TIPS.
A message was quickly posted at the Operation TIPS web site saying that the government had "never intended" for workers to call the hotline for "anything other than publicly observable activities." Expressing concern about "safeguarding against all possibilities of invasion of individual privacy," the DoJ claimed that the hotline number would "not be shared with any workers, including postal and utility workers, whose work puts them in contact with homes and private property." That didn't satisfy the critics and in July 2002, Rep. Dick Armey (R-TX) introduced legislation banning Operation TIPS. Ultimately, TIPS was excluded from the final version of the Homeland Security Act.
Eliminating TIPS, however, didn't mean an end to the government efforts to involve ordinary citizens in the defense of the homeland.
Talon: The son of TIPS?
In early May, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz "directed the heads of military departments and agencies" to begin creating a database that would contain "raw, non-validated" reports of "anomalous activities" within the U.S., Wired News reported in late June. This new domestic spying system, called Talon, will develop a "mechanism to collect and rapidly share reports 'by concerned citizens and military members regarding suspicious incidents.'"
Wolfowitz, one of the neo-conservative architects of the Bush Administration's pre-emptive strike doctrine and a longtime advocate of invading Iraq, will oversee Talon's development. (Wolfowitz was also recently handed another new task by Secretary of Defense Donal Rumsfeld -- the authority to decide which terrorist captives should be tried by military tribunals.)
Details about Talon -- first reported at Kitetoa, a French security web site -- remain sketchy. Peter S. Probst, a former Pentagon terrorism expert and currently a terrorism consultant and program director for the Virginia-based Institute for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence, thinks the Talon program is necessary to protect DoD property and personnel. "It would be derelict not to keep track of anomalous incidents. This is just common sense," Probst told Wired News.
Lee Tien, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said that Talon raises similar red flags as Operation TIPS did. "What is the value in accelerating the speed of the rumor mill?" Tien told Wired News. "You have a wealth of really weak data that ends up percolating its way through the system. How will they ensure that there's no opportunity for people's dossiers to become tainted?"
It's unclear "whether Talon reports would become part of the Pentagon's controversial Terrorism Information Awareness (TIA) program, or whether the data would be shared with other government agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security," reports Wired News. The Talon system "appears to have grown out of Eagle Eyes, an antiterrorism project developed by the Air Force Office of Special Investigations. Launched in April 2002, Eagle Eyes is a neighborhood watch-type program that 'enlists the eyes and ears of Air Force members and citizens in the war on terror,' according to the Office of Strategic Influence (OSI) website."
Then, there is LifeLog. In late-May, Defense Tech's Noah Schactman reported that the same folks at DARPA who had designed the Internet and given the world the global positioning satellite system (GPS) had come up with "a stunningly ambitious research project designed to gather every conceivable bit of information about a person's life, index all the information and make it searchable." It is called LifeLog, and it aims to catalogue every step you take and every move you make.
Schactman: "The embryonic LifeLog program would take every e-mail you've sent or received, every picture you've taken, every web page you've surfed, every phone call you've had, every TV show you've watched, every magazine you've read, and dump it into a giant database. All of this -- and more -- would be combined with a GPS transmitter, to keep tabs on where you're going; audio-visual sensors, to capture all that you see or say; and biomedical monitors, to keep track of your health.
"This gigantic amalgamation of personal information could then be used to 'trace the 'threads' of an individual's life,' to see exactly how a relationship or events developed," according to a DARPA briefing.
That's your domestic surveillance scoreboard. What's coming next is anybody's guess. One can't help but wonder: If 9/11 hadn't happened, what would the best and the brightest be working on?