The federal government wants to hoard data on citizens in the name of homeland security, attempting to ferret out possible terrorist plots against Americans -- but critics say this desire has run amuck and risks creating a homeland of insecurity.

Using technology to improve the collection, analysis and sharing of data is laudable. But as the government moves to crack down on terrorist activities, implications of a snooping Big Brother and the prospects of innocents being persecuted has a few lawmakers and privacy advocates at odds with some schemes in the works.

The federal government is interested in information such as the books that people check out from libraries; purchases made on the Internet; how payments for services are made; living arrangements; travel reservations; e-mails; telephone, medical and bank records; and other surveillance data.

This data, collected with permission from state governments and businesses, would be funneled through a new Terrorist Threat Integration Center, where profiles of citizens would be created, and ideally the bad apples would emerge.

The Total Information Awareness (TIA) and the Computer-Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening System II (CAPPS II) are two intelligence-gleaning programs in development. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has spent millions of dollars to create a way to focus security on people rather than baggage. In developing CAPPS II, an offshoot of the original CAPPS program, the TSA hired four teams of technology companies to demonstrate how intelligence and powerful software could analyze the habits of Americans and come up with indications of potential threats.

Privacy advocates are also concerned about anti-terrorism legislation recently introduced by the Department of Justice, saying it would go further than the USA Patriot Act in eroding checks and balances on presidential power. The legislation contains a number of measures that worry privacy advocates, such as allowing for the sampling and cataloguing of Americans' genetic information without a court order, and permitting sensitive information about citizens to be shared among law enforcement agencies without permission.

TIA is not nearly as close to implementation as CAPPS II, which is scheduled to be phased-in this year. TIA, the monster of all data-mining projects, is being developed by the Information Awareness Office of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The TIA is a "super computer system" ? a mixture of hardware and software ? which would cast its web over citizens and noncitizens, extracting information on individuals.

The information would be stored in a large database accessible to government officials, and a "senior government official" would oversee that database, according to a White House press release. DARPA, a branch of the Defense Department, would create an "ultralarge, semantically rich, full-coverage information database repository for counterterrorism," said DARPA spokeswoman Jan Walker.

The TIA system would replace current database technology used by intelligence agencies and the military, which is "lacking in its ability to support an effective defense to terrorism due primarily to the databases being too diffuse and stovepiped," Walker said.

"TIA is developing a powerful, collaborative network," she continued. "With TIA, units that have the counterterrorism mission will be able to share information from their existing databases to pre-empt terrorists. TIA will close the seams between organizations that previously prevented early detection of foreign terrorists by punching holes into their stovepipes."

In creating TIA, DARPA is developing various technologies, including its Evidence Extraction and Link Discovery (EELD) for automated discovery, extraction and linking of "sparse evidence." This technology extracts relevant data and relationships about people, organizations and activities from message traffic and open source data, such as e-mail, according to Walker.

Translingual Information Detection Extraction and Summarization (TIDES) is a function of the program that enables English-speaking analysts to locate and interpret critical information in multiple foreign languages without having to speak those languages. Right now, TIDES is focused on English, Arabic

Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor  |  Justice and Public Safety Editor