Security

Big Brother: Is He Watching You?

Super computer systems that track our everyday transactions have many on edge.

by / April 4, 2003 0
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 and Chinese.

There are also "Red Teams," which Walker called "groups of very smart people who try to think like our adversaries. The Defense Department has traditionally used the terminology 'Blue Force' to denote U.S. coalition forces and 'Red Force' to denote the adversary."


Commission Not Unanimous
Former Virginia Gov. James Gilmore, chairman of the congressionally appointed Advisory Panel to Assess Domestic Response Capabilities for Terrorism Involving Mass Destruction, is not a fan of electronic surveillance or data-mining technologies.

"That is not consistent with the traditions and histories of the United States," Gilmore said. "If you create a situation like that, you begin to build awareness into the American people that they are being watched. That changes their conduct and influences whether or not they are really a free people."

Gilmore argued strenuously against TIA, supporting instead the continued development of existing intelligence gathering structures, such as the FBI. He was the panel's lone voice against creating a new entity to carry out data-mining intelligence operations.
Despite his personal opposition to the concept, Gilmore said he understands the commission's thinking.

"They just don't think the FBI can do it," he said. "Their concern is that the FBI's culture doesn't permit them to conduct counter-terrorism adequately, and therefore, they have to go to a new agency. That's the commission report."

The commission's thinking, and that of other supporters of the projects, is that counterterrorism must be done, and data mining is an essential tool to that end. The theory is that using TIA and CAPPS II would have led to the capture of at least several members of the suicide squads that demolished the World Trade Center and severely damaged the Pentagon.

"We knew in August 2001 that there were two very dangerous terrorists who entered the United States illegally, and [we] were looking for them: We did not find them," said Stewart Baker, former general counsel of the National Security Agency. "If we'd had quick access to mostly public databases with addresses, phone numbers, frequent flyer numbers, it is highly likely we would have found the two hijackers we were looking for."

That would have led to the apprehension of others, "a dozen or more," Baker said, "because the hijackers were sharing a lot of stuff, and we would have noticed links among them."

Not necessarily, critics say.

No Need for TIA?
"I'm not sure how that might have happened," said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. "If one knew the individuals of concern were Middle Eastern males studying at U.S. flight schools, one doesn't need TIA to act on that. If that information were on hand, the FBI could have cracked that case early on."

Some are skeptical that the increased data collection on individuals is a recipe for better intelligence operations.

"It's a mistake to go down the road of thinking you can profile people and come up with an idea of perspective crime," said Chris Hoofnagle, deputy counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). "You're searching 100 percent of the population for a very small percentage of people who may be malicious actors. Even if you have a half-percent error rate, that results in many, many people being approached or stopped or otherwise involved with the police."

Others suggest there would be an even greater error rate, and an error rate of 1 percent would lead to approximately 3 million innocent people having to explain themselves.

"It's profiling," Hoofnagle said. "It's the search for prospective crime based on things that have happened. You might be determined a risk because you have a lot of debt. You might be determined to be a risk because at one point in the past you lived with someone who was convicted of a crime or who was involved in some sort of criminality."

Baker suggested that initial intelligence efforts with good intentions could drift into surveillance of persons other than suspected terrorists. "As soon as you start building those links and examining the data to see how you would search it, you're a long way down the road to allowing people to draw up a kind of dossier on whomever they're authorized to search for," he said.

One source who requested anonymity expressed fear that such data-mining projects would inevitably lead to racial profiling.

"It's a dangerous path to go down," the source said. "When you start to run this stuff against public files, what will happen is the profiling of individuals and categorization of individuals to ultimately address risk factors associated with who has the propensity -- given either racial profiles or religious profiles -- to commit crimes or be victims."

Gilmore said nothing is inevitable. "But again, it would have to be designed that way. And how would you know if it's going to be a system that's held completely confidential? How would you know if they're racial profiling or not?

"You can't simply accumulate information on Jim Gilmore -- where he goes, what movies he attends, what books he buys, where he goes to eat, what he orders over the Internet -- and accumulate it in some sort of database," Gilmore continued. "Even if there's limited dissemination of that, the American people will not want anyone to have accumulated data on the conduct of their lives."

DARPA's Walker said TIA is not a data collection tool -- it will use information legally collected and stored in existing databases "of authorized U.S. intelligence and operational units."

There is also concern about the constitutionality relating to data collection, data dissemination and privacy.

Protecting Privacy
"There are states that are open-record states," said Nick Dedier, CIO of the California Division of Criminal Justice Information Services, noting that California has a right to privacy in its state constitution. "Consequently, sharing various types of either driver's license records or criminal records, things of that nature, are public information. In California, that's not the case."

A statement from Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman's office said the new Department of Homeland Security will have a "stronger privacy officer than would exist anywhere in government, with strong new powers to ensure that technologies are used to sustain and not to erode privacy protections."

Gilmore said strong regulation is the key -- not a privacy officer.

"A privacy officer is irrelevant unless you have a clear understanding of what is permissible and what is not permissible," he said. "What is effective is to have a clear regime and rule system that says what you're going to do and not do. Then a privacy officer could enforce that. You have to have a rule, you have to have a law."

TIA is currently headed by John Poindexter, former national security adviser, who was found guilty of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and destruction of evidence during the Iran-Contra scandal in the 1980s. The charges were later overturned, but critics question whether his leadership is appropriate for a project that requires a balance between protecting the privacy of innocents and thwarting terror.

"There are conflicting imperatives here," said the Government Secrecy project's Aftergood. "One is to combat terrorism and to break down barriers to information sharing among the various agencies. On the other hand, one wants to make sure the basic structures of civil liberties are absolutely protected. And that needs to be done and overseen by a disinterested party that is equally committed to both goals." e, 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 and Chinese.

There are also "Red Teams," which Walker called "groups of very smart people who try to think like our adversaries. The Defense Department has traditionally used the terminology 'Blue Force' to denote U.S. coalition forces and 'Red Force' to denote the adversary."


Commission Not Unanimous
Former Virginia Gov. James Gilmore, chairman of the congressionally appointed Advisory Panel to Assess Domestic Response Capabilities for Terrorism Involving Mass Destruction, is not a fan of electronic surveillance or data-mining technologies.

"That is not consistent with the traditions and histories of the United States," Gilmore said. "If you create a situation like that, you begin to build awareness into the American people that they are being watched. That changes their conduct and influences whether or not they are really a free people."

Gilmore argued strenuously against TIA, supporting instead the continued development of existing intelligence gathering structures, such as the FBI. He was the panel's lone voice against creating a new entity to carry out data-mining intelligence operations.
Despite his personal opposition to the concept, Gilmore said he understands the commission's thinking.

"They just don't think the FBI can do it," he said. "Their concern is that the FBI's culture doesn't permit them to conduct counter-terrorism adequately, and therefore, they have to go to a new agency. That's the commission report."

The commission's thinking, and that of other supporters of the projects, is that counterterrorism must be done, and data mining is an essential tool to that end. The theory is that using TIA and CAPPS II would have led to the capture of at least several members of the suicide squads that demolished the World Trade Center and severely damaged the Pentagon.

"We knew in August 2001 that there were two very dangerous terrorists who entered the United States illegally, and [we] were looking for them: We did not find them," said Stewart Baker, former general counsel of the National Security Agency. "If we'd had quick access to mostly public databases with addresses, phone numbers, frequent flyer numbers, it is highly likely we would have found the two hijackers we were looking for."

That would have led to the apprehension of others, "a dozen or more," Baker said, "because the hijackers were sharing a lot of stuff, and we would have noticed links among them."

Not necessarily, critics say.

No Need for TIA?
"I'm not sure how that might have happened," said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. "If one knew the individuals of concern were Middle Eastern males studying at U.S. flight schools, one doesn't need TIA to act on that. If that information were on hand, the FBI could have cracked that case early on."

Some are skeptical that the increased data collection on individuals is a recipe for better intelligence operations.

"It's a mistake to go down the road of thinking you can profile people and come up with an idea of perspective crime," said Chris Hoofnagle, deputy counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). "You're searching 100 percent of the population for a very small percentage of people who may be malicious actors. Even if you have a half-percent error rate, that results in many, many people being approached or stopped or otherwise involved with the police."

Others suggest there would be an even greater error rate, and an error rate of 1 percent would lead to approximately 3 million innocent people having to explain themselves.

"It's profiling," Hoofnagle said. "It's the search for prospective crime based on things that have happened. You might be determined a risk because you have a lot of debt. You might be determined to be a risk because at one point in the past you lived with someone who was convicted of a crime or who was involved in some sort of criminality."

Baker suggested that initial intelligence efforts with good intentions could drift into surveillance of persons other than suspected terrorists. "As soon as you start building those links and examining the data to see how you would search it, you're a long way down the road to allowing people to draw up a kind of dossier on whomever they're authorized to search for," he said.

One source who requested anonymity expressed fear that such data-mining projects would inevitably lead to racial profiling.

"It's a dangerous path to go down," the source said. "When you start to run this stuff against public files, what will happen is the profiling of individuals and categorization of individuals to ultimately address risk factors associated with who has the propensity -- given either racial profiles or religious profiles -- to commit crimes or be victims."

Gilmore said nothing is inevitable. "But again, it would have to be designed that way. And how would you know if it's going to be a system that's held completely confidential? How would you know if they're racial profiling or not?

"You can't simply accumulate information on Jim Gilmore -- where he goes, what movies he attends, what books he buys, where he goes to eat, what he orders over the Internet -- and accumulate it in some sort of database," Gilmore continued. "Even if there's limited dissemination of that, the American people will not want anyone to have accumulated data on the conduct of their lives."

DARPA's Walker said TIA is not a data collection tool -- it will use information legally collected and stored in existing databases "of authorized U.S. intelligence and operational units."

There is also concern about the constitutionality relating to data collection, data dissemination and privacy.

Protecting Privacy
"There are states that are open-record states," said Nick Dedier, CIO of the California Division of Criminal Justice Information Services, noting that California has a right to privacy in its state constitution. "Consequently, sharing various types of either driver's license records or criminal records, things of that nature, are public information. In California, that's not the case."

A statement from Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman's office said the new Department of Homeland Security will have a "stronger privacy officer than would exist anywhere in government, with strong new powers to ensure that technologies are used to sustain and not to erode privacy protections."

Gilmore said strong regulation is the key -- not a privacy officer.

"A privacy officer is irrelevant unless you have a clear understanding of what is permissible and what is not permissible," he said. "What is effective is to have a clear regime and rule system that says what you're going to do and not do. Then a privacy officer could enforce that. You have to have a rule, you have to have a law."

TIA is currently headed by John Poindexter, former national security adviser, who was found guilty of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and destruction of evidence during the Iran-Contra scandal in the 1980s. The charges were later overturned, but critics question whether his leadership is appropriate for a project that requires a balance between protecting the privacy of innocents and thwarting terror.

"There are conflicting imperatives here," said the Government Secrecy project's Aftergood. "One is to combat terrorism and to break down barriers to information sharing among the various agencies. On the other hand, one wants to make sure the basic structures of civil liberties are absolutely protected. And that needs to be done and overseen by a disinterested party that is equally committed to both goals."

A political debate may be necessary Gilmore said. Lawmakers temporarily halted the project's funding, which was at $10 million for the fiscal 2003 budget, according to DARPA. EPIC claims it has obtained DARPA documents indicating funding allocations could reach $240 million for fiscal 2001 through fiscal 2003.

Though they want TIA stopped, critics say they're worried that lesser-known projects closer to implementation, such as CAPPS II, will slip by as the debate centers on the massive TIA project.

At press time, Congress had passed an amendment to a spending bill that halted funding of the project until the Department of Defense provides a detailed report including program goals, costs and safeguards to protect Americans' privacy.

The Department of Defense had 90 days to file the report or the project would stop immediately, although President Bush could keep research alive by certifying to Congress that stopping the program would endanger national security. Additionally, the amendment prohibits TIA from being used on American citizens without Congressional authorization. Noncitizens and foreign intelligence operations are still fair game.

CAPPS II employs an algorithm to determine indicators of characteristics or patterns related to occurrences of certain behaviors. It compares the data and rates each passenger's risk potential according to a three-color system. The color ranking will be encrypted on the boarding passes and checked by screeners at checkpoints. Critics have questioned the algorithm; what constitutes an indicator; how the indicators are deemed related; and who ultimately decides which individuals to investigate.

Hoofnagle said CAPPS II would create a "caste" system of people who get less screening because their profile is less suspicious, and it may not ultimately catch the cagey terrorist.

"A lot of what's going on here is that they want to create tiers of convenience for people," he said. "You'll see that a lot of what's going on in air travel profiling and the whole idea of trusted traveler is that certain people want to get on the airplane quicker, and they want less screening."

He said the idea is to create profiles of those persons deemed suspicious and funnel resources toward watching that group. One problem with that, critics say, is that a malicious terrorist will go to great lengths to become part of the trusted traveler group.

It is known that the Sept. 11 terrorists rehearsed by taking the same flights multiple times to determine security levels on particular airlines.

"These are very resourceful people," Hoofnagle said. "They are willing to spend years getting ready to commit a crime. There's no doubt they might spend years getting ready to appear that they are a trusted traveler or a trusted person."

Clamping Down on Freedom?
Nearly everyone agrees law enforcement agencies at all levels need to do a better job of sharing and analyzing information, and data mining is not going away.

"Correlating data gets cheaper and cheaper, and sooner or later it's going to get done, and the government is going to look stupid if it's not doing it," Baker said. "There's data mining going on for commercial purposes. It's surprisingly easy to do. I guess if it's going to be done to decide how big a discount I get at Safeway, I'd like it also to be used to try to catch people who are trying to kill me."

Baker said the best scenario is for the government to move ahead with data mining, but make sure privacy is built in.

"The more tech-savvy solution is to say, 'What can we do with the technology that will build in controls and accountability, and make it more difficult for people to put their noses in where they shouldn't be?'" he said.

Baker suggested building accountability into searches, setting up tools that identify anyone who has accessed the data; when they accessed it; what they did with the data and possibly ask for an explanation of an unusual request.

"Obviously, the machine is not going to evaluate them, but if one time in a hundred you're asked to explain why you're doing a search, it reminds you that somebody is actually capable of auditing you," he said.

As part of the TIA project, DARPA is developing a program called Genisys, which would deploy built-in privacy protections for innocents -- information on the program is sketchy, however. DARPA said it has sponsored studies to create more technology-based privacy safeguards.

That's not quite enough to ease concerns of privacy advocates.

"The goal is to keep the people of the United States free -- to not allow terrorists to create an environment in which we clamp down on the freedoms and liberties of the American people," Gilmore said. "If that occurs, then the terrorists have won a historic victory."
Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor Justice and Public Safety Editor