Senate Unanimously Votes to Stop Defense Department's Total Information Awareness Program

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The U.S. Senate has voted unanimously to adopt an amendment that would stop deployment of a Pentagon project that civil liberty groups contend could severely affect people's privacy.

Called the "Total Information Awareness Program (TIA)," the project's aim is to develop technology that would allow government authorities to track terrorists by scanning information in Internet mail and compiling and mining data from businesses' databases, which conceivably could include both library and bookstore transaction and customer records. The project is being developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and is headed by former Reagan Administration National Security Advisor Admiral John Poindexter.

"The goal [of the Pentagon project] was to access all conceivably available data and create a database from that data and data mine it [sort through large amounts of data to find patterns and associations]," said David Sobel, the general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), an Internet privacy group. "Part of that mix could be library data, which would be highly sought after, because, as we know, bookstore and library data is particularly revealing."

The amendment to bar TIA was part of an omnibus appropriations bill and was proposed by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) and co-sponsored by a bipartisan coalition. Following the January 23 approval of the bill, Wyden said in a press statement, "As originally proposed, [TIA] is the most far-reaching government surveillance plan in history. The Senate has now said that this program will not be allowed to grow without tough Congressional oversight and accountability, and that there will be checks on the government's ability to snoop on law-abiding Americans."

The appropriations bill now goes to conference, where the Senate bill and a similar House-passed appropriations bill will be reconciled into one bill. At present, the House Appropriations Bill does not include any TIA amendment, though Wyden is urging members of Congress to retain the amendment in the conference report, according to Carol Guthrie, a spokesperson for Senator Wyden's office.

If the legislation is enacted, funding for research and development for TIA would halt within 60 days, unless the president certified to congress that such a stoppage would endanger national security, or if the Department of Defense submits a report detailing its procedures and privacy protections. And, even if the technology were to be developed, Congress must then approve deployment.

Developing a technology to create a massive database able to mine data accurately from many varied sources is a challenge that database marketers know all too well. At present, current data collection, data warehousing, and mining technology is only as accurate as the person keying in the data -- in other words, it is subject to human error.

According to a 2001 PricewaterhouseCoopers survey of 600 IT directors, 75 percent of companies polled have experienced problems due to faulty data and only 37 percent of the IT directors felt "very confident" about the quality of their company's information, as reported by Business 2.0.

Many believe that it's reasonable to question how accurate the data that a government data warehouse contains will be. "When data is used in the private sector, that might result in a person getting junk mail accidentally," said EPIC's Sobel. "When it's the government raising a red flag, that's a lot different. What happens then? Will that mean that it's a reason to do a FISA surveillance?" --David Grogan